Early Sunday morning. The city is waking up to a hesitant autumn sun, reflected in the dusty windows of a loungy café, in the middle of Amsterdam. A Russian journalist, who spent the last 15 years working for the country’s biggest state broadcaster, sips his cappuccino and talks about how friendly and interested people are in the Netherlands. He gives a calm impression, even though he has just challenged one of the most powerful institutions in Russia, maybe even in the world. He is here to share his story.
Dimitri Skorobutov is a Russian journalist, previously employed by the State Television and Radio Company in Russia, where he worked as a Chief News Editor. When we meet him, he is visiting Amsterdam to meet with Dutch journalists, discussing his future as a journalist and whistleblower. A whistleblower is someone who exposes illegal or compromising information about an institution. Dimitri Skorobutov has opened the lid of what previously were speculations on censorship, propaganda and corruption within the Russian state media. He grew up in Krasnoyarsk in Siberia, but moved to Moscow to study languages and linguistics in his early twenties. He started working with media when he was 17. After working for a year with Leonid Parfenov, a highly acclaimed Russian journalist, he was asked to join the State Television and Radio Company. He became in charge of the television program “Vesti” (“News”), and was also an international editor.
Skorobutov says that the estimated viewership of the state broadcaster in 2010 was 102 million people, daily. Russia has a population of approximately 145 million, meaning that the state broadcaster had an incredibly wide reach. The programs were more popular in the countryside than in Moscow and St Petersburg, where a lot of people get their news from social media or online sources instead of television. The broadcaster is entirely funded by the state, and its annual budget is around 26 billion rubels, or almost 400 million euros.
So, besides from the direct funding, how far away from Kremlin is the state media? Skorobutov explained that there are eight Chief Editors, the position he also held for several years. They broadcasted several times a day, meaning that there were multiple editors involved in keeping the channel floating at all hours of the day. One step above these editors was the News Department director and his deputies. Lastly there was the General Director. Above this position; The press office of the Kremlin.
They contacted his mother as a way of showing him the power the state television company has
A regular working week would consist of meetings with regional representatives, where the upcoming events and broadcasts were discussed with representatives from the Kremlin. At these meetings, Skorobutov also received instructions about what to censor.
“It is called Ne Daiom. It means “we do not give”. Actually, I had a discussion with my deputy director. I told her “It is stupid to write down things like this. Someone could take it away.” And now, it is me who is taking it. But, at those times, I did not see myself doing this. So what did she do? She just changed it to two letters, ND. I told her, “Do you think no one will understand it now?” It was such a stupid thing to do. Frankly, I’m convinced such instructions must be given orally, just for security. We are the state channel. We are under very continuous watch of others. Because everyone wants to know if we are under some kind of censorship or if we receive instructions from the Kremlin. “
Skorobutov explained that there was a difference between permanent and temporary “embargos”, or censorships. Examples of permanent embargos are any form of criticism against the state, social protests or negative reports around the elections. Temporary embargos were more connected to diplomatic schisms, such as not reporting on Britain’s queen’s anniversary. Another relevant example is the ban on reporting about the MH17 crash, where 298 people were killed, 193 of them Dutch citizens. The airplane was shot out of the air above Ukraine, and the investigation was tiresome and slow. There is still a huge resentment within the Netherlands regarding how the issue was handled both in Ukraine and in Russia.
The Stars of Propaganda
Apart from dealing with censorship, the state broadcaster also published propaganda. In this case, propaganda refers to constantly putting Russia and its actions in a positive light, building on the narrative of the invincible state and its admirable regime. This was effectively coordinated by journalists who Skorobutov called “stars of propaganda.” These were journalists who had successfully reported pieces celebrating Russian success within and outside of the nation’s borders.
“There were certain correspondents that were considered stars. I was even told that I was not allowed to correct them. One time, I tried to correct a text written by one of these stars of propaganda, but I was told that she is a Hero of Russia, a reward she earned for her job as a correspondent in Syria. My deputy director told me “Dimitri, didn’t you know that she is not correctable at all?” There were mistakes in her text and I was not allowed to correct them!”
These journalists earn a considerable salary – some even more than 10 000 euros a month – for their absolute loyalty. This salary stands in considerable contrast to what Skoroboutuv and other Chief Editors earned. Skorobutov says that the official salary on his contract was 145 euros a month. The minimum wage in Russia is 150 euros a month. He states that his editors and producers earned between 60-90 euros a month. However, this was only the official salary.
“We had another part of our salary, but I don’t know how that was calculated. We just got it and that’s all. I asked the budget department where the rest of the money came from. In total it was about 850-900 euros per month. Their answer to me was “Dimitri, do you want any problems?”
The larger part of Skorobutov’s salary was a part of this informal bonus system. This means that the journalists were not only under constant pressure to report in a “right” way, they were also incredibly financially dependent on the company. Any missteps could erase a larger part of their salary, leaving them in a precarious financial situation. On the other hand, absolute loyalty could be rewarded royally, both when it comes to your paycheck, and by becoming “non-correctable”.
The Point of Reflection
In 2012, there were large social protests in Moscow, against the outcome of the 2011 Duma election and the presidential election of 2012. This was also when Skorobutov first questioned the leadership of his country. The demonstrators wore white ribbons as a symbol of their revolution, and the media called them “white ribboners”. The police suppressed the protests, and many were imprisoned. After these events, Putin held a press conference.
“Putin said, and I don’t remember his exact words, but he said something like “when first I saw protesters, I thought it was an action for supporting the struggle with AIDS and that’s why they put contraceptives on their clothes…” They were wearing the ribbons as a symbol of protest and disagreement and the president dismissed it as condoms. For me, this was shocking. He is the symbol of our country and he talks like this about his people? That is strange to me. And that was my point of reflection. I was still convinced that I had to work for the state, but there were doubts in my mind. “
If you are inside a system, inside anything, you only see the surroundings. When you step out of it, you see all the rest
Skorobutov explains that there is almost no free media in Russia. Bear in mind that the country has 145 millions citizens, yet Skorobutov only lists two independent media platforms: Novaya Gazeta (New Newspaper) and New Times. About working within the state media, contributing to censorship and the spread of propaganda, he says:
“I was convinced that I was doing the right thing. I was convinced that I was creating our future, and that it would be better. Sometimes my colleagues from the oppositional media said “Dimitri, you were stupid if you did not understand earlier what you were doing.” To them I say “Dear colleagues, dear friends. If you are inside a system, inside anything, you only see the surroundings. When you step out of it, you see all the rest. I was inside the state media for 15 years, surrounded by all their information. For sure, I only had one vision, one way to look at it.”
Even though there were doubts on his mind, Skorobutov continued working for the state broadcaster. It was a dramatic incident with a colleague that finally ended his employment. Skorobutov was attacked by a drunk colleague, and hospitalised as a result. When the police tried to investigate the attack, the state broadcaster actively worked against any investigations. Video recordings of the attack were erased, and the attacker was given a forced leave of absence. By pretending the problem did not exist, removing all traces of evidence, the company tried to avoid a public scandal.
“I was told by my department director: “Our reputation is everything, and your health is nothing. If someone knows that a news chief editor was attacked by a drunk colleague, it would cause a scandal. And we don’t want any scandals.” They are the state media, the most popular and praised media, and such conflicts would make them look bad.“
Skorobutov was told that if he collaborated with the police, talked to the labour inspection, or tried to go to court, he would be immediately dismissed. Yet, one of his colleagues informed him that they were going to dismiss him anyway, regardless of what he did, since he had caused the broadcaster so much trouble. Skorobutov hired a lawyer, and was eventually dismissed, during his sick leave. This is illegal according to Russian labour law, yet the entire legal process has been actively opposed and prolonged by Skorobutov’s former employer. Against all odds, Skorobutov and his lawyer managed to get the dismissal declared illegal. Yet, legal victory is not everything. The pressure put on Skorobutov and his family has been severe.
“I did not tell my mother anything cause I did not want to worry her. They sent her a letter, addressed to me. The letter said that I needed to show up to explain what had happened the night when I was attacked. She was shocked. She has problems with high blood pressure, and I did not tell her anything cause I did not want to disrupt her. I think they did this to put pressure on me, by involving my family.”
Skorobutov explained that his employers knew his residence in Moscow and had his telephone number, yet they contacted his mother as a way of showing him the power the state television company has.
Skorobutov is far from the only journalist who has been pressured and threatened in Russia. There are multiple examples of investigative journalists and oppositional figures being attacked and even murdered, both within and outside of Russia’s borders. The independent news platform Novaya Gazeta has allegedly “armed their staff”, to protect their employees. Recently, prominent journalist Tatyana Felgenhauer was stabbed in the neck. Yulia Latynina, another critical journalist got her house sprinkled with a chemical substance. The most famous example is Alexander Litivenko, a former Russian agent, who was murdered through radioactive poisoning after writing two critical books about Russia. Making the Russian state your enemy is dangerous, which could explain why Skorobutov is barely receiving any support.
“Three independent news platforms have supported me. US based Radio Freedom, Colta.ru and the Russian oppositional media The Insider. When I was trying to contact my colleagues in the opposition, I was always told one thing. “Dimitri, you are from the other side. Try to find support there. You have spent almost 15 years there, ask your former colleagues to help you now, and you’ll see what will happen.” This was very hard for me. We do the same job, belong to the same union, yet there was this limit. Opposition and state.”
Skorobutov worked within and for the state for 15 years. He was not an investigative journalist with the aim to expose the state. On the contrary, he was a pawn in Russia’s censorship and propaganda machinery. Now that he has made the state his enemy, independent journalists and media platforms still do not accept him. He is stuck in a limbo, not belonging to any side. This is what makes his story so interesting. Skorobutov was one of many Russian state employees who was convinced he was doing the right thing, that he was creating a brighter future for Russia. He did what he thought was right. He is no superhero, neither does he pretend to be. He has simply come to the realisation that what he thought was right turned out to be wrong. And now Skorobutov is turning the weapons the Russian state used against their people, against the state itself.
All photos: Isabel Bonnet