By Olga Dovbysh & Janne Suutarinen
“You have lots of freedom of speech in the internet and in social media, but there exists a fine line somewhere. Nobody knows exactly where it is, or if one has crossed it or not.”
Since February 2017, Thielko Grieß has worked as a correspondent and presenter of Deutschlandradio in Moscow.
Grieß studied Cultural Studies, Political Science and Communication and Media Studies in Leipzig, Jena and Ljubljana and then gained his first journalistic experience as a news editor and reporter at MDR (Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk). In 2009 he was part of the founding team of the newsroom of DRadio Wissen. After the traineeship Grieß worked as a presenter of the program “Morning information” (Informationen am Morgen) on Deutschlandfunk and was one of the station’s external reporters.
Having journalistic experience in two different media systems, in the interview Grieß reflects on peculiarities of journalistic work in Russia.
What are your reflections of working as a journalist in Moscow in comparison to your journalistic experience in other countries?
I have worked as a journalist in various countries but for a longer period of time only in two: Russia and Germany. Because of that, I would like to compare the aforementioned.
Firstly, in Russia, I find myself in a beautiful big country, in which the information sphere is a lot different to what I used to have in Germany. The role of state television, state media, and state speakers is different. People, going on media stages and speaking there are a lot more limited. This is understandable but still a surprise, given the size of the country.
Secondly, what I do as a journalist is of course trying to find the truth, facts and plausibilities. This is more difficult in a country in which the number of people a) being able to talk about a specific subject, and b) who dare to speak in public as an expert of specific subject, is relatively small. The academic scene – the scene that constitutes a pluralistic life in more liberal countries – is a lot smaller in Russia.
Along with that, there are certain sources that are not available to me. A number of politicians, people working in ministries and several other authorities have not been talking to me. They don’t talk to anyone, not even to Russian media. Even the best blogs – and I’m not talking about the traditional media here – are not publishing open information. They all refer to sources close to Kremlin, close to a ministry, close to the secret service, and so on. The environment is significantly much foggier compared to those which I have worked in Germany.
There is the last important point. Many of my Russian colleagues – those who I would refer to as journalists and not just people, who repeat what is expected of them – probably have very tough lives on personal level. Some of them live in danger, especially those who have one leg in the journalism and the other – in activism.
“The more important you get, the less it is possible to say what you really think.”
How do you see the current state of freedom of speech in Russia?
Unfortunately, what the constitution of the Russian Federation says is possible, doesn’t count as much. The picture is not very clear. You can say many things, but it depends on where you say it, whom you say it to and how important you are. I mean, if you have a lot of people listening to you or reading your stuff, or not. The more important you get, the less it is possible to say what you really think. On the 2018 World Press Freedom Index, Russia is in the position 148. That is not a very good ranking, and unfortunately for good reasons.
In Russia, there are laws that are trying to curb freedom of speech in the public sphere. For example, extremism and some other laws or paragraphs written in imprecise language. You never know what may be a reason to file a suit against a journalist.
You have lots of freedom of speech in the internet and in social media, but there exists a fine line somewhere. Nobody knows exactly where it is, or if one has crossed it or not.
Do you see any signs of change of this situation? How do you see the future of media freedom and freedom of speech in Russia?
I have no prognosis really. I am always hoping for much of the current and still existing freedom of speech on the web will be possible to be conserved for the future as well. On the other hand, I’m not too confident of that.
There are the secret services with their technologically advanced systems with which they can perform amazing things. The services are very well financed by the state. These organisations always have to show that they are using the money for “good causes”. That is why they arrest alleged terrorists every once in a while, and they also have to meet their expectations in the cybersphere as well. They will definitely not leave that sphere.
When the Roskomnadzor (Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media) started to hit on Telegram, I thought they would now try to crash the last technologically fenced island of freedom of speech. It’s amazing what you can read on some of it’s channels.
It didn’t crash, it is still there. But I’m not sure what comes next.