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Russia’s ‘Press Council’ sides with central election commissioner in ethics dispute against ‘Associated Press’

Source: Meduza
Alexander Shcherbak / TASS / Vida Press

Russia’s “Independent Press Complaints Council” has sided with Central Election Commissioner Ella Pamfilova against the American news agency The Associated Press in a dispute over an article published in late August about Moscow’s City Duma elections. According to the complaints council, AP’s reporting was biased. Here’s what happened.

She said, she said

Pamfilova accused The Associated Press and specifically AP correspondent Nataliya Vasilyeva of biased reporting and distorting her comments. The central election commissioner also criticized AP for publishing only “an opinion column by the correspondent,” instead of the full hour-long interview recorded with Vasilyeva. When AP declined to issue a retraction, the Central Election Commission filed a formal complaint with the Independent Press Complaints Council. 

Harriet Morris, the acting director of AP’s Moscow bureau, says Vasilyeva’s story meets the agency’s journalistic standards. Morris also says she was summoned to the Central Election Commission after the article was published, and told by Pamfilova’s deputy, Vladimir Grachev, that Vasilyeva was risking her career in Russia with such reporting, and would “no longer be welcome” at the Kremlin or the Foreign Ministry. AP says it views this warning as a threat.

Both sides in the dispute signed an agreement recognizing the council’s jurisdiction as an independent arbitrator. Members of the Russian news media and different nongovernmental organizations comprised the panel that rendered the council’s decision. 

The council’s decision

Reviewing the Central Election Commission’s complaint, council experts determined that AP formally violated no ethical standards by using an hour-long video interview to publish a short text. The council nevertheless decided that the disagreement over the article’s style amounted to a “miscalculation by the journalists,” arguing that AP should have clarified the format of its reporting in advance, so the Central Election Commission could have better articulated its terms, before the interview. The council stressed, however, that the election commission’s press service should still have been expected to know AP’s typical interview format.

Vasilyeva didn’t distort anything Pamfilova said, but she “cast her remarks in a different light,” the council ruled. The panel’s experts also accused Vasilyeva of folding Pamfilova’s remarks into a predetermined story about the conflict between the authorities and Moscow’s opposition, within a framework that supposedly criticized the Central Election Commission’s actions. “The text’s inclusion of undistorted and unbroken quotations from the interview with Ms. Pamfilova changes little about its character, given that these quotes themselves are introduced by the author in this constructed context,” reads the council’s decision.

The council also decided that one of Vasilyeva’s paragraphs too loosely interpreted Pamfilova’s remarks when claiming that the election commissioner “insisted [...] that there was nothing she could do to prevent what blew up into a major political crisis.” The council’s experts also believe that the article’s headline “could be seen as having shades of defamation.”

In fact, the proper Russian translation of AP’s article (“Russian Election Chief Defends Ban on Moscow Candidates”) was itself a source of debate. Election officials insisted that the phrase suggests Pamfilova supported a ban on registering candidates in the Moscow City Duma race, which would be unconstitutional. The press council did not accept this interpretation, but it also rejected AP’s argument that Pamfilova defended the decision to bar specific candidates. 

The panel’s findings are non-binding, and both sides have agreed not to use the judgment if either pursues the dispute in court or elsewhere. At the time of this writing, neither the Central Election Commission nor The Associated Press have commented on the decision.

Story by Mikhail Zelenskiy

Translation by Kevin Rothrock