Russian journalist Anna Nemtsova says that the future of journalism in her country lies in the internet, where thousands of bloggers write stories that are shared on social media, unfettered by censorship or oversight by the Kremlin.
Nemtsova, Russia’s leading investigative journalist, is the correspondent for US-based magazine Newsweek and website The Daily Beast and also writes for Politico, Foreign Policy magazine and the Russian BBC. She is in Sydney this week to attend the Australian Press Council conference, which started today. The Moscow-based journalist says she loves the community of internet reporters, citing a group who focus on justice issues and make a career of attending all high-profile court trials and transcribing the proceedings. For journalists who can’t attend the trials, this is extremely helpful, she says.
And as Russians live on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, it’s now much easier to get information out.
Although Russia has thousands of free and independent publications, the majority of people get their information from television and “that’s why Putin is so popular, with an approval rating of more than 80%”.
While Kremlin officials don’t often speak to freelancers, it is not a big problem, Nemtsova says, as she can always watch Putin’s press conferences, which can go for four hours, on television.
“But if something is happening somewhere, I go there; I need to see it with my own eyes and there are people there and they speak to me.”
Nemtsova writes often about the role of women in her country: “In Russia there are 11 million more women than men and men die seven years earlier.” Life expectancy for men in Russia is only 64. “So there are lots of lonely women looking for men — there are plenty of good stories there.”
Last year Nemtsova won a prestigious Courage in Journalism award from an international women’s media group after a series of reports from Ukraine involving considerable personal danger. She said that she had been abducted twice but played down the issues, saying that all journalists faced them. Reporters must be witnesses and go to conflicts and report what they see with their own eyes, she says. In Russia journalists are often seen as soldiers who are on the side of the government, so the community of freelance writers is vital.
Nemtsova reported on the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines MH17, in which 38 Australian citizens were killed. Seven journalists were killed during the war in Ukraine.
“It’s a big tragedy to lose colleagues and friends but it’s a bigger tragedy to lose them in peacetime.”
The 43-year-old began reporting on the crisis in the north Caucasus and central Asia 10 years ago as a researcher for The Washington Post and has a particular focus on human rights and social issues. She travels from Moscow, where she lives with her husband and son, across Russia by herself and also creates ground-breaking multi-media projects. “If I need to use something, I borrow it from someone else,” she said.
Not many journalists now go to Chechnya, where there is very high unemployment and serious human rights abuses. There are increasing numbers of young Russian citizens who are being recruited by Islamic State and leaving for Syria.
While Nemtsova’s editors keep tabs on her and express concern for her welfare, there’s no time for psychological debriefing, she says: “The beast is always hungry.”