In its effort to help students understand the journalistic and political context of Evan Gershkovich’s ’14 detainment in Russia, the Department of Russian hosted Daisy Sindelar for “The Challenges of Reporting About (and in) Russia: The Case of Evan Gershkovich ’14,” last Friday.
Sindelar has served as editor-in-chief and acting president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and has worked for The Moscow Times and The St. Petersburg Times. She has extensive experience reporting in Russia, Ukraine and other former Soviet satellite states.
Sindelar walked the audience through a recent history of freedom of the press in Russia. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Boris Yeltsin encouraged the participation of international journalists in the Russian media by relaxing censorship policies. In recent years, these policies have been steadily reversed by President Vladimir Putin who has tried to force foreign newspapers and journalists, like Gershkovich, out of the Russian media.
“What journalists do is dig for information, and increasingly, that’s an activity that is viewed as suspect and hostile in a country like Russia,” Sindelar said.
Sindelar commended the creativity of remaining journalists for transmitting information in and out of Russia, but she also noted that new techniques have been normalized at the expense of traditional journalism, a realm in which Gershkovich shines.
“The really tragic thing about his detention is that he’s exactly the type of journalist that you want on the ground in Russia, and it’s because he came in with a spirit of real curiosity and real love for the culture,” Sindelar said.
Senior Lecturer in Russian Reed Johnson reiterated the importance of traditional reporters like Gershkovich in the Russian media in an email to the Orient.
“It’s precisely thanks to such dedicated journalistic work that accurate information can get out—and, just as importantly, can also get in,” Johnson wrote.
Sindelar demonstrated the decline of the free press in Russia by showing two short films: one focused on the effect of censorship on Russian journalists, while the other featured Russian families wracked with tension over media portrayals of the war in Ukraine. She noted that though it is important for Russians to see that the media they consume is filtered, it is important for Ukrainians to see the same thing.
“It was, to a certain degree, cathartic for Russian audiences. It tapped into the despair that many people feel on a personal level for their responsibility for what is going on. And, by contrast, it was also very important for Ukrainian audiences to see that the Russian public and Putin are not a monolith,” Sindelar said.
There are also generational discrepancies affecting how Russians receive news. Older generations primarily consume television news, which is state-run. Younger generations, however, get news from the internet and can access news that Russia’s state-owned media misconstrues or censors. This difference has become a source of tension within families, both in and outside of Russia.
“In the early months of the war, people outside Russia seeing the news became very distressed when they realized that their family members back home had a completely different picture of what was going on, to the degree that there were often very heated disagreements [and] family members not speaking to each other,” Sindelar said.
Professor of Government and Acting Chair of Russian Department Laura Henry found the clips to be compelling examples of what Russians and Ukrainians are experiencing and how journalists have adapted to increasing restrictions on media.
“Russian journalists have struggled valiantly and creatively in response to increasing restrictions on their work, really since the early 2000s, and it’s remarkable how many of them have persevered and found ways to move television channels online and to do digital work and to reach a broader audience in that way, despite the pressure,” Henry said.
Johnson emphasized that Sindelar’s experience with the media climate in Russia provides important context for Gershkovich’s arrest.
“One can’t talk about [Gershkovich’s] arrest without talking about the war,” Johnson wrote, “and one can’t talk about either without talking about the broader social and political changes in Russia.”
Throughout her exploration of the challenges to a Russian free press, Sindelar continued to return to the importance of care and understanding when reporting on Russia—qualities she associates with Gershkovich.
“A journalist who goes in with a spirit of compassion and empathy is a really fantastic journalist to be working on the ground, especially in a country like Russia, which needs so much explaining and so much nuance for an outside audience to understand,” Sindelar said.