Monday, October 5, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Moscow Journalists Play Up Ethnic and Religious Conflicts More than Their Colleagues in the Regions, SOVA Center Finds

Paul Goble

Vienna, October 5 – Public opinion surveys have consistently shown that ethnic Russians living in Moscow are more likely to have xenophobic attitudes about non-Russians and non-Russian Orthodox, a pattern most researchers have sought to explain by pointing to the greater likelihood of contact between the two groups in that megalopolis.
But now, Galina Kozhevnikova of the SOVA Information-Analytic Center argues that there may be another and perhaps more immediate cause: Moscow media are far more likely to use hostile language in their coverage of non-Russians than are media outlets in Russia’s regions (
Such coverage not only helps to create a negative image of those who are religiously and ethnically different than the Russian majority, she suggests, but the appearance of such articles has the effect in the minds of many Russians of legitimating whatever negative feelings they may have toward ethnic and religious minorities.
And the impact of such negative images in the Moscow media also has an enormous impact on the population of Russia as a whole because the primacy of the capital in the media life of the country – even though, she said, journalists outside the capital city are less likely to allow xenophobia to affect their coverage.
In presenting the SOVA Center report on “Journalists about Religious Groups: Between Incompetence and Hostility,” the human rights researcher said that “many journalists, especially reporters lack the habits of a professional react to unusual situations. And when something unusual happens, the first reaction of the journalist turns out to be unprofessional.”
“As a result,” she continued, “instead of a restrained and all-sided description of the event, into the ether and onto the pages of newspapers frequently appear panicky rumors, as a rule, embellished by the everything xenophobic ideas of the representative of the means of mass communication” (
Kozhevnikova noted that after the North East Theater disaster, the “anti-Caucasian and anti-Muslim rhetoric grew an order of magnitude” from what it had been. And during the Beslan school hostage crisis, the Moscow media played up the idea that the conflict there was between “Orthodox Ossetia” and “Muslim (in the first instance, ‘Chechen-Ingush’) terrorists.”
But in fact, she continued, “Beslan is to a remarkable degree a Muslim city in what is in reality a primarily Orthodox republic, and the terrorists did not in any case distinguish their hostages on the basis of faith.” In these cases and many others, the Moscow journalists “sacrificed professional to everyday xenophobia and negative stereotypes.”
The xenophobic stereotypes of Russian journalists, the SOVA researcher reported, sometimes help shape images of events abroad as well. Most reporting on the Paris clashes several years ago treated the violence as being between “white Christian Europe” and “black Muslim immigrants,” even though class explained more than either religious or ethnicity.
In Russia, she continued, this “racist point of view not simply dominated” domestic coverage. It continues to be “the only version” most Russians have of those events even three years after the fact. And as a result, it is “used in anti-immigrant campaigns which are conducted from time to time in the Russian media.”
Sometimes, she said, this problem seems to reflect ignorance rather than outright hostility: Journalists often use terms like “sect,” “Wahhabi,” or “assassin” which have negative connotations in daily life without any clear understanding of what these words mean or making any effort to explain them their listeners or readers.
And sometimes the journalists themselves do an adequate job but their editors choose a title which sends a different and very dangerous message. Kozhevnikova gave the example of a “Moskovsky komsomolets” story which talked about a Daghestani as “a suspected terrorist” that was given the headline “Islam Has Prepared a Terrorist Action in Moscow.”
Kozhevnikova said that the Russian government, apparently concerned about what such messages say to the Russian population and the world, has taken a number of steps to try to rein in the xenophobia of the media, beginning with a November 2005 informal circular “from the Kremlin” banning religious terms when reporting about “negative events” in the Caucasus.
But despite such steps, xenophobic terms and concepts continue to inform much of the coverage of non-Russian events in the mainstream media. And consequently, despite the efforts of some journalists to report honestly on these issues, the Russian media and especially its Moscow center bears part of the responsibility for the rise of anti-minority sentiments.

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