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DIFFERENT OPINIONS

The opinions expressed by the authors of the articles in this section are for discussion purposes only and may not coincide with the position of the Russian Government and the Embassy

11.04.2014

Russia and the west are trading places on freedom of speech (by Dmitry Kiselev for The Guardian 10.04.2014)

EU calls me 'Putin's chief propagandist', yet in Russia journalists are free to tackle difficult issues without fear of state sanction

East and west appear to be trading places. In Russia we now take full advantage of freedom of speech, whereas in the west political correctness, or political expediency in the name of security, have become arguments against freedom of speech.

This is not happening in Russia. Why? Just because the Soviet Union and its one-party system are gone. Russia is gradually returning to a state more natural to the Russian soul, which Dostoyevsky describes so well in The Brothers Karamazov as "capable of combining the most incongruous contradictions, and capable of the greatest heights and of the greatest depths".

Great heights and depths characterise not only the Russian character, but also freedom of speech in Russia today. Ksenia Larina, a popular host on the Ekho Moskvy radio station, which is owned by Gazprom Media, once ranted on air that patriotism makes her "throw up worms and cherry pits". The writer Viktor Yerofeyev, speaking on the television channel Dozhd, said that "Leningrad should have been surrendered to the Germans" during the second world war, diminishing the heroic sacrifice of the city's defenders. The editor-in-chief of Moscow-based New Times, Yevgenia Albats, has said Russia should let China take Siberia. All of these people consider themselves liberals. In my opinion, they are "ultra-liberals".

And yet they and other ultra-liberals continue to work in Russia without any government restrictions on their freedom of speech. While some patriotic Russians fiercely oppose the ultra-liberals, there have been no calls for reprisals against them; their names have not been added to sanction lists. However, the same cannot be said about the ultra-liberals, for whom making such lists is a favourite pastime. We tolerate this in Russia and make no complaints.

Russian journalists are free to tackle difficult issues in their reporting without fear of government sanction. To take one such issue, unlike in Great Britain or the US, gay men in Russia are not prohibited from donating blood or organs, a heart, for example. In the US, any man who has had sex with another man after 1977 is banned for life from donating blood. The UK recently relaxed its rules, requiring that at least a year pass after the last contact with another man, but continues to bar homosexuals from being donors. Gay men who die in accidents cannot donate organs, and their bodies are buried or cremated along with their perfectly healthy hearts.

Personally, I believe the US and the UK have the right policy, and I have discussed this at length on the air. My opponents have called me a homophobe and used their freedom of speech to wage a war of words against me. But Russian journalists are free to comment on this or any other issue, from events in Ukraine to problems in Russia and the world. There are no government sanctions restricting freedom of speech or freedom of movement in my country.

Instead, the sanctions have come from the west. On 21 March, the EU barred me and other Russian citizens from travelling, banking or otherwise doing business in the EU. There's just one problem: I don't have any accounts or business in the EU. I am a professional journalist; that is all I've ever been.

As a political commentator, I host the weekly TV news show Vesti Nedeli on Rossiya 1. The show, which recently has stretched to more than two hours, features reporting from correspondents and my personal take on the news. Although we work in a highly competitive market, we usually get anywhere from 15% to 20% of the Sunday primetime audience, which are good ratings for any country.

Furthermore, I have editorial control of Vesti Nedeli, and my point of view does not always coincide with the official position of the Kremlin. Another programme, Vesti v Subbotu, airing on Saturday nights on our channel, is hosted by our former London correspondent Sergey Brilev – a talented reporter whose interpretation of events is often quite different from mine.

EU officials have called me "Putin's chief propagandist". That's their opinion and I respect their right to express it. But why target a journalist with sanctions? Why restrict my freedom of movement, which is enshrined in the 1948 universal declaration of human rights? How are these sanctions compatible with freedom of speech? Is freedom of speech no longer a core value in Europe? If this is the case, we are truly witnessing a revolution in the western world and a betrayal of what were until recently western values.

That's why I say that Russia and the west are trading places. Even in my worst nightmares I can't imagine Russia imposing sanctions on any of my western colleagues. The main charge levelled against me is that I engage in propaganda.

However, propaganda is not a concept addressed by international law, while freedom of speech is. By sanctioning me, the EU has sanctioned freedom of speech. This shameful chapter will go down in European history much like the Dreyfus affair. Nothing personal. Let's assume that I'm an abstract journalist, but I'm also the first and so far the only journalist to be targeted by co-ordinated EU sanctions. Some may point out that I'm also the head of the new state-owned news agency Rossiya Segodnya. But I've only held this position since December.

So far, we have been busy creating this new agency. We have not created a brand yet, and our only new products – news wires in English and Spanish – were released in test mode on 1 April. So the sanctions announced on 21 March cannot be related to my position as director general of Rossiya Segodnya.

Ultimately, it's somewhat quaint to believe that sanctions can restrict freedom of speech in this day and age, even if you call it propaganda. If you have read this far, I have another propaganda victim under my belt.

Dmitry Kiselev is a Russian journalist




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