Russian students enthused about environment face reporting challenges

Eric Freedman after an interview for the independent news website 74.RU in Chelyabinsk, Russia.

B Eric Freedman after an interview by the independent news website 74.RU in Chelyabinsk, Russia.

By Eric Freedman
I recently spent a week in Russia, lecturing at three universities about environmental journalism.  The students in Saint Petersburg and Chelyabinsk sounded enthusiastic about journalism as a profession, and covering environmental issues.
The U.S. State Department sponsored my lectures and gave me a chance to speak with some of Russia’s brightest future journalists on these themes:

  • Environmental Journalism: The Challenges Ahead
    Вызовы экологи ческой журналистки
  • “Real People” Make Environmental Stories Real
    «Реальные люди» – делаем «экологические» истории настоящими
  • Finding the Environmental Stories Nobody Else Covers
    Поиск «экологичного» – эксклюзивные истории

However, it’s a tough time in both spheres in Russia: Environmentalism and journalism.

The Putin government is using a controversial law that requires nongovernmental organizations that receive funds from abroad engaged in vaguely described, “political activities,” to register as, “foreign agents” – a phrase redolent of Cold War espionage.
Many NGOs have declined to register, arguing that the law is vulnerable to overly broad application.  As a result, NGO’s in both media and ecological activism have run afoul of the law and are facing the consequences in court.
During the week I was in Russia:

  • The Center for Media Rights was fined $6,000 for, “failing to label itself a foreign agent after a court ruled that the group’s actions qualified as ‘political activity,’” the English-language daily Moscow Times reported, saying, “The Justice Ministry had argued that public statements about Russian laws by the group’s head constituted ‘political activity’ because they aimed to influence public opinion — thereby making the organization subject to the country’s law on foreign agents.”
  • The Siberian Environment Center was fined $6,000 for not labeling itself a foreign agent because it accepted money from abroad, according to the Russian news agency Interfax. The money for its conservation work came from the Netherlands Embassy and U.S. ecological organizations Earth Island Institute and the Global Green Grants Fund.

The first environmental group to fall under the hammer of the law was Ecodefense, an anti-nuclear NGO that received funding from the European Union and some German groups.  Its original $5,000 fine was cut by two-thirds on appeal, but the group said it would continue fighting for dismissal of the charge.
Bellona, a European foundation that works on climate change, quoted Ecodefense co-chair Vladimir Slivyak as saying, “We are not foreign agents.  We have, for the lifetime [of our organization], worked exclusively in the interests of defending the ecological rights of Russia’s citizens.”
Other environmental NGOs caught in the foreign agent law’s crosshairs include the Partnership for Development in southwest Russia’s Saratov region and Environmental Watch in the North Caucasus, which was ordered by a court to shut down for what Bellona described as, “an array of exotic reasons including extremism.”
In March, Saint Petersburg’s Regional Press Institute paid an $8,000 fine, the highest in Russia so far, for failing to voluntarily register.
The foreign agent law is certainly not the only threat to environmental and media activism.  For example, during my week in Russia a court refused to release environmental activist Yevgeny Vitishko early from prison, the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty news service reported.  Vitishko was behind bars for spray-painting a fence in a protected forest near Sochi, site of last year’s Winter Olympics, to protest what he called illegal construction there.  The human rights group Amnesty has named him a “prisoner of conscience.”  Also in the North Caucasus, an eco-activist has been accused of extremism for exposing environmental damage caused by a pig-breeding farm owned by a member of parliament.
Of course, journalism has long been a dangerous profession in Russia.  Since 1992—right after the collapse of the Soviet Union—59 Russian journalists have been killed because of their work, according to the New York-based press rights advocacy group Committee to Protect Journalists.  The largest proportion of the victims covered such high-risk beats as corruption, politics, war and crime.
The overall environment for media independence in Russia worsened last year, according to U.S.-based Freedom House, moving away from a façade of press freedom towards a return of Soviet-style controls.  There has been less tolerance of opposition media and more anti-Western propaganda.
Although our country also faces serious environmental problems, we’re fortunate that our media doesn’t face the same heavy-handed efforts to suppress press freedom and that environmental advocacy groups don’t face government constraints that could force them out of operation.
This column originally appeared on
Eric Freedman is the director of the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism.