Conflict & Justice

Attacks on Russian journalists

This is Moscow State University. It's one of Russia's most prestigious schools and its journalism department is widely considered the gold standard for aspiring reporters in the country.

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A life-sized mural of the founder of the university hangs here in the main journalism building.

In the portrait, Mikhail Lomonosov holds a quill pen and appears ready to tackle the day's news.

journalism student Julia Bilova sits below the mural. She's dwarfed by her surroundings�the mural, the enormous hall, the four-story building. But Bilova seems self-assured as she considers the proper role of the Russian journalist.

�One has to understand the relationship between freedom and responsibility. If a journalist takes responsibility for his actions he can then defend the article he writes. He needs to understand to what degree his reporting will benefit the society�.

That view seems to be widespread on this campus.

Student Marina Scheterova takes a smoking break outside one of the journalism buildings. Scheterova says she's seen the recent video of journalist Oleg Kashin on YouTube.

Still, like her classmate, Scheterova says reporters in Russia must abide by the rules.

�Reporters are limited to a certain degree to what they are allowed to say and they have to filter their words in order to get published in newspapers or online�.

Students who hold such opinions strike journalism vice Dean Tatiana Greenberg as overly cautious.

�These students are still undecided and have uninformed ideas about the profession. We have lots of really good graduates who work for top publications and have relative freedom to express their views�.

And in fact, some media outlets do publish stories that are critical of government polices. There is solid investigative reporting on private and even public corruption here.

But Russian media are state controlled and generally skewed toward the Kremlin's point of view. A dozen female journalists at Moscow State even created their own lingerie calendar complete with sexy comments for Prime Minister Putin as a birthday gift.

Still, Professor Greenberg says a reporter's job is not to flatter those in power but to tell the truth about them.

�I think it's very important. Even every day people are very engaged in social problems. Our people have a very high demand for information and freedom of speech. In fact, I think freedom of speech is more important than many other values are to Russians. It's one of the achievements of recent times that is still very important to us�.

And Russian state television has been leading with the attack on journalist Oleg Kashin for days. Dmitri Medvedev even tweeted about the Kashin beating. The Russian president said whoever was responsible will be punished.

And today, the authorities in Moscow took the rare step of allowing a public demonstration this Thursday in support of Kashin.

But Journalism student Bilova is unlikely to be on the front lines of a movement for greater press freedom. She doesn't think reporters should be movers and shakers in Russian society.

�In Russia journalism is simply journalism. It doesn't have a function. Journalists should not tell people they need to change everything and live differently; on what grounds should they be able to do that?�

Meanwhile, Russia's parliament is set to consider toughening punishments for attacks on reporters. Lawmakers will debate a bill that would impose a sentence of up to 20 years for causing serious harm to a journalist. Currently attacking a reporter typically garners a minor charge of hooliganism.