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Ramil Sitdikov / Sputnik / Scanpix / LETA

‘All I can do is recommend a good therapist’ Journalists working for Russia's state-run news media come clean about sexual harassment

Source: Meduza
Ramil Sitdikov / Sputnik / Scanpix / LETA
Ramil Sitdikov / Sputnik / Scanpix / LETA

By Friday evening on March 23, more than 30 Russian news outlets had announced that they are boycotting the State Duma, in response to the Ethics Committee’s decision on Wednesday to exonerate deputy Leonid Slutsky, who’s been accused by multiple journalists of sexual harassment. So far, not a single state-owned or state-financed media outlet has joined the boycott. Meduza spoke to correspondents from several government publications to learn their thoughts about the movement. Some of these individuals say they've also encountered harassment while reporting at the Russian parliament. None of these journalists wanted Meduza to publish their names, and two even refused to let us specify where they work, fearing problems with their editors and threats from those who have harassed them.

A woman employee at one of Russia’s state-run news agencies

The are some people at our newsroom now who are talking about the Slutsky story. It’s not like this surprised anybody. I have my own negative experience with this, at any rate, so I try to leave the break room when they start talking about Slutsky, so I don’t get worked up.

I came to work at this news agency straight out of college. As a part of my job, I often had to talk to officials at different levels, and it was never a problem for me. Moreover, I often came up and asked [the deputy described below] questions, together with colleagues from other news outlets.

Once they sent me to some meeting with deputies at the State Duma, and I was terribly late. I showed up totally out of breath, and miraculously (I thought at the time) I managed to catch the deputy I needed in the hallway. I’d really rather not give his name, but it wasn’t Slutsky. I ran up to him and begged him to repeat his position, which he’d just told the others, and answer a couple of the questions that my editor wanted me to ask him.

“Oh, honey, you’re so excited! I am at your disposal,” the deputy said. I remember his words exactly. I was a little taken aback that he was so informal so suddenly, but I went ahead and started asking my questions. Instead of answering, he began petting my head — like he was being very tender, or something. So I was standing there holding up a recorder, and he was just stroking my head. I pulled away and asked him if he planned to answer. Looking at my chest and smiling like some vile cartoon villain, he said that I was a very pretty girl, and he would be happy to continue the conversation alone in his office.

The blood rushed to my face, my legs went cold, and I started swearing at him. I think it was the first and only time in my life that I’ve talked to a stranger like that. I can’t remember what I said verbatim, but I told him something about how repulsive and disgusting he was, and that I was sick just looking at him, and how disgraceful it was to behave like him in the halls of the State Duma. I even scared myself, and then I left the building, almost running.

On the way back to the newsroom, I was thinking about how I’d tell my editor everything, about how she would come to my defense, and about all that. I ran into the newsroom and told her everything, asking her to reassign me — to send me anywhere but the State Duma. It was a naive request, of course. I understand that now. When I told her everything, my editor just looked at me and said, “Oh, dear. You’re off to a good start. A lot of people have gone through this. The only thing I can do is recommend a good therapist. I’ve been going for many years. But I can’t stop sending you on these assignments. Nobody likes them.”

At first, I wanted to quit immediately. But then I talked to some colleagues and realized that, no matter where I was working, these officials would still be there, and I didn’t want to leave journalism altogether. So in the end I decided to keep working, and later my supervising editor became someone else, who also wasn’t too surprised when he heard people’s stories about deputies being rude and making advances, but at least he takes such behavior a little more seriously.

Since the incident, there are many times I’ve met the jerk who tried to pet my head at the Duma. When our eyes meet, we both make stone faces, as if we’d never met before. Since that day, when I was so terrified, the stone face has become an integral part of my work with deputies. I get it ready anytime before sitting down with them, and I ask my questions in a strict voice. Because if you allow yourself even a drop of humanity, in seconds you could find somebody’s hands all over you.

A male employee at TASS

On the one hand, I fully understand my supervisors and my colleagues. A state news agency can’t boycott the State Duma. After all, we’re actually subordinate to the Russian government, which in turn is accountable to the very same State Duma.

On the other hand, the way Slutsky has behaved and the way the whole LDPR faction has behaved since the allegations — it’s not even disgusting, but something worse. It’s something beneath any moral standards. An official at that level simply doesn’t have the right to talk like that or do such things. Unfortunately, however, this is just half the problem. Even worse is that fact that the State Duma is protecting Slutsky through Speaker [Vyacheslav] Volodin. This rules out even an internal investigation.

As for the boycott, I’d happily join it, if I could. And it’s great that journalists — sometimes even on different sides of the barricades — can come together and show solidarity. It’s a separate issue that [nobody ever listens]. Did they remove [Attorney General Yuri] Chaika or [Prime Minister Dmitry] Medvedev, after Navalny’s investigations and the public uproar? So why should they get rid of Slutsky? They don’t turn on their own.

A male employee at the media holding group Rossiya Segodnya

A boycott against the Duma by journalists would make sense, if the three [largest] news agencies [RIA Novosti, TASS, and Interfax] agreed together to boycott the deputies, like when they banned Zhirinovsky for what he did to the RIA Novosti correspondent. He basically did it on camera, and it was obvious to everyone that he’d done something wrong, and they punished him almost immediately.

My colleagues and I talk about whether Slutsky will face any consequences from law enforcement over this — maybe for all his traffic tickets. The Slutsky case is glaring, but it’s not actually very surprising. Many people have known for a long time that the Duma is a cesspool and no two deputies are alike. It would be unfair to say that nobody in the newsroom gives a damn [about harassment], but at the same time this whole story hardly triggers any emotions anymore.

I think all the deputies need some kind of ethical reeducation. The story with the harassment is just the tip of the iceberg. Not all the deputies know how to behave properly. They wear the expensive suits and blow their noses into handkerchiefs bearing their initials, but sometimes under the suit there’s just a hillbilly with a caveman’s views. Naturally, you’re like woah. But everyone pretends like it’s all okay.

You could say that we [the news agencies] gave up and aren’t supporting our colleagues, or you could say we’re just exhausted. We have to talk to these officials more often than anyone. Twenty-four/seven, we live in their absurdity, and if you reacted emotionally to all their antics, you could go insane quickly. That’s why we try to do our work without emotion: we get the information and we turn it into coherent news.

A woman employee at RT

Almost nobody in our newsroom has talked about Slutsky and the journalists — probably because of our publication’s special focus. We’re only interested in the international news agenda.

But in general a lot of the people at RT liberal-minded. There’s hardly anybody among us who would sincerely support Putin or the State Duma deputies. It’s just that somebody has to do this propaganda work, too. I’d like to be part of the independent news media, which can boycott Slutsky just like that. In the fall, when the [Harvey] Weinstein scandal hit, everyone at RT was convinced that he was a real jackass.

In general, I talk to a lot of journalists and I often hear stories about how in the State Duma there are a lot of deputies who hit on men — not just on women. Yesterday, I heard about how a journalist says Vladimir Zhirinovsky harassed him. I believed it immediately and wasn’t the slightest bit surprised.

A woman employee at a regional state news agency

When I read the news about Slutsky, my first reaction is pride for the outlets that have declared a boycott against him. Alas, I can’t speak of such pride when it comes to my own outlet. Nobody here talks about Slutsky. Maybe they’re afraid, or maybe they just don’t care. You can find his name mentioned on our website in a few lifeless news briefs about the news outlets that have joined the boycott. It’s like this is how we’re supporting the journalists, but secretly. Nobody is forcing us to keep silent about the issue, but everyone seems to be afraid of writing too much.

We seem to be half-honest with our readers, glossing over what’s really important: this can affect not just journalists, but any woman whose boss is a man who can’t keep his hands to himself.

This turns my colleagues and me personally into half-journalists, but I don’t want to do something halfway. I can write a vitriolic Facebook post about Slutsky, and I’d know that they wouldn’t fire me for it, but I wouldn’t get any real support from my newsroom, either. The most I could hope for would be a few comments and likes from my colleagues. In other words, I’d get passive shadow support that won’t change anything.

This news blackout seriously makes me think about quitting and finding work at a publication that’s independent from the state. Journalism can’t be both honest and cautious. Journalism is either loud, honest, and dangerous, or it’s propaganda.

Interviews by Irina Kravtsova, translation by Kevin Rothrock

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