Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH in Boston. Being a journalist in Russia often means working directly, or indirectly, for the government. The Kremlin controls most major media outlets in the country. That leads through self-censorship in many cases and those who publish or air stories critical of the government often suffer from harassment or intimidation. Last week, someone we've spoken with several times on the show, journalist Natalia Antonova stepped down from her position at the Moscow News. After four years as an editor there, her decision to leave was a difficult one but she says the paper, which has been temporarily shuddered, has been changing, and not in a good way.
Natalia Antonova: The parent agency of the Moscow News, RIA Novosti, which was Russia's best and biggest news agency, was liquidated by presidential decree. The person who is going to head the new news agency that is being created, is Dmitry Kiselyov. A lot of people in the West have now heard of him because he actually appeared to threaten nuclear holocaust against the United States on Russian national Tv the other day. He's actually tasked with running this news agency that is supposed to create a very positive image of abroad and to bring the message home that Russia is, as he put it, "an important country with good intentions."
Werman: RIA Novosti is Kremlin-funded, so does that now mean that the Moscow News is also Kremlin-funded and lacking editorial independence?
Antonova: We were Kremlin-funded before but we were never told "you can write this but you can't write that." We never had problems like that. Now, for their state money, they want to see something very different and it's not the kind of product that we were making.
Werman: Natalia, you wrote an impassioned blog post about your decision to leave and in it you said "what's especially hard to accept is that, with regard to Ukraine, nothing may ever be the same again. It's a scary, painful time and it's almost bizarre to observe how the stuff of headlines and news reports also has to do with your family and fate." Explain that last bit.
Antonova: I'm originally from Kiev, I was born there. I grew up in the States but that's where most of my family still lives. Just looking at my own family, I'm very worried, because people have become very polarized. Whether pro-Russia or against Russia, it just seems that there's lots of turmoil and it does affect me personally, it affects my relatives, my friends, the people I've known since I was a very small child. We're not sure how it's going to go. It could all turn out fine or there could be a huge bloody mess on our hands and I'm really hoping that we'll avoid the latter scenario.
Werman: At the very least, it sounds like what happened in Crimea and Ukraine. It's forced your focus off journalism, at least for the short term, and onto Ukraine and this crisis.
Antonova: I'm going to Kiev in a few weeks to be with my family. They're cancelling my visa, so I have to leave.
Werman: Why did Russia cancel your visa?
Antonova: It's nothing personal, it's just that when you leave your job and you're here on a work visa, they have to cancel it. It's over and I have to look for another job, find a new visa or find work in another country. I think I would prefer to go back to working in Russia because I see it as a very interesting place. In spite of all the latest turmoil and all of the scary stuff that's been happening lately, it's still a really cool place.
Werman: Russia is a "cool place," as you say, to cover because it's so interesting but how would you describe the atmosphere there right now?
Antonova: Well, Vladimir Putin's approval rating is very high right now, it's over 80%. Lots of people are really excited about Crimea. There's also the fact that I think the Russian economy has been really fragile. The government is turning people's attention away from internal issues and focusing externally, saying "we're going to take Crimea and there's all these enemies out there to get us." It plays well for a domestic audience, so it's kind of a moment of triumph. Whether or not that feeling of euphoria will last, I don't know.
Werman: Journalist Natalia Antonova speaking with us from Moscow. She recently left her position as editor of the Moscow News. Thanks very much Natalia.
Antonova: Thank you.