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"Why don't you write what I see?"

Tobias Goltz talks to Russian journalist Grigori Pasko about the freedom of speech vacuum in which he works

Grigori Pasko. Photo: Gaby Waldek, Leipzig

Berliner Zeitung: Mr. Pasko, are you - a Russian journalist critical of the government - afraid that what happened to your colleague and friend Anna Politkowskaja (more) who was murdered in October 2006, could happen to you too?

Grigori Pasko: Every journalist who is critical of the government would tell you - if he's honest - that he lives with this fear. I'm better off because I have already gotten rid off many fears.

In 1997, when you were a military journalist, you filmed Russian military boat dumping nuclear waste into the Japanese sea. You exposed an environmental scandal and were sentenced to almost three years of prison, including six months in a work camp, for treason. Did this experience change your journalistic work?

My way of working today is no different from in the past. I am aware of the risk of being sent to prison again at any time. But I'll take the risk. If nobody addresses topics that the government is cagey about, the public will never know what is going on.

You're currently concentrating on the Russian pipeline projects.

Take the North Stream Pipeline running through the Baltic Sea. It will most certainly bring the Germans a lot of gas and a happy life. To the Russian population, it will bring neither gas nor happiness because the profits will end up in the pockets of a very few people. Another aspect is the cost of such large-scale projects. How is it possible that the construction of a pipeline is initially supposed to cost two billion and then suddently costs six billion? If the money for building the pipeline were the private money of Vladimir Putin, Gerhard Schrì∂der or Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller, I wouldn't worry about it. But it's the money of the Russian taxpayers, out of whose pockets the money was squeezed.

Why doesn't Russian media report on these things?

I have spoken with many journalists coming from cities on the pipeline's route. I've asked them: Why don't you write what I saw?" And they replied: "We were paid by Gazprom."

What is the state of freedom of the press in today's Russia?

During Putin's six-year term, 21 journalists were killed and more than 300 preliminary proceedings were initiated. Journalists writing critical reports are beaten up or refused access to information; foreign journalists are refused re-entry. When the President or another Kremlin representative holds a press conference, only pro-government journalists are admitted. Moreover, they can only ask questions that the President's press staff has previously agreed to. The current Duma plans to amend the law on the freedom of expression. The rights of journalists will be further restricted. Even today, it is easy to bring journalists to trial. In 99 percent of all cases, the accuser wins.

According to a recent survey published in Russia, Vladimir Putin enjoys great populartiy among 80 percent of the population. 70 percent said that they would vote for him in an election.

I don't believe these official figures. Moreover, most Russians obtain their information from the state-controlled television stations such as Channel One or NTW, which are not critical of Putin. Putin is a product created by television. On the screen, you see him skiing or practicing martial arts - all of these things make up Putin's image. That's why he is so popular in Russia.

When you consider the great support for Putin, you might think that many Russians are not interested in a democracy.

If people don't know what a democracy is, they can't decide if they want it or not. First they need a chance to try it out. That's why one needs to give people the opportunity to opt for the possibility of a democracy in free elections. It's possible that many more people are in favour of it than one might think.

Given the state-control of the media, there is little hope that it can elucidate on the debate.

There are almost no independent media any more, and the few that are still independent have very little influence on the population.

Echo Moskwy is considered the only radio station that is not controlled by the Kremlin. Why does it still exist?

So that the government can offer something when asked whether independent media exist in Russia. There is also an independent newspaper, Nowaja Gazeta. But there is no television station that offers investigative television. That would be asking too much; the medium of television reaches and manipulates the majority of the population.

To what extent can the Internet help to shed light on things?

According to official statistics, there are 25 million Internet users in Russia. There are probably even less. But already the government is looking for ways to keep the Internet under the control of the state.

There are numerous journalists in Russia who collaborate with the government and act as its "image makers". Why do so many agree to be abused like this?

Each one of them can who he or she wants to work for. But many are afraid of losing their salary or becoming unpopular. If they don't act the way Putin wants them to, they have to fear being arrested or even killed. There are a great many conscientious, investigative journalists in Russia, but the possibilities for having their work published are very limited. For instance, I was supposed to write an article for a newspaper and when I had finished, the paper wanted to print it - but only under a pseudonym. I didn't agree of course because I think I deserve to have my own name under my ideas.

What can be achieved by pressuring the Russian government?

The first to who that he didn't aggree with Putin's course was former Yukos boss Michail Chodorkowski. He was the first to openly criticise the government's intervention in the economy. Chodorkowski sits in jail. His case is exemplary of the current situation: where Stalin and Breschnev shared an ideology, today's government just wants to make money.

What role do the oligarchs play in contemporary Russia?

Since the arrest of Chodorkowski, they've evoked in me feelings of pity and nausea. Like soldiers, they have been placed in a row and now they do what they're told - and their orders come from Putin's people.

What did you actually achieve with your exposure of the environmental scandal?

The fact is that, since my film, Russia has stopped throwing atomic garbage into the ocean - after 30 years of having done so. I feel that my journalistic job is done if I can say that atomic garbage is not being tossed into the sea.


The article originally appeared in Berliner Zeitung on August 20, 2007.

translation: Claudia Kotte, nb - let's talk european