January 12th, 2011


Scoops, spies, and social networking

Nothing I had seen or experienced in my life so far was nearly as significant.

My first foreign assignment as a journalist was to Moscow in the summer of 1991, the year that the Soviet Union broke up. The collapse of one of the great power blocs which had dominated the world for my entire life up to that point was a huge event for global politics, and for me as a journalist, and a person.

It was the start of the world in which I worked as a foreign correspondent: a world where warriors in tracksuits and trainers fought the conflicts of the post-Cold War age against the soldiers of established armies; where states' ideology, where it still existed, seemed more and more frequently to be a cover for economic ambition. 

In Moscow that summer, there was a sense of excitement, euphoria, and uncertainty. As the decade wore on,  that gave way to disillusion and dissatisfaction. Promises of prosperity delivered, for many, poverty. 

It was an incomparable time to be a journalist. Aside from the new stories which we western reporters were able to send from behind the former iron curtain, the Russian media were experimenting more and being bolder with every day that passed. Archives were opened, offering previously unseen perspectives on events of the 20th century.  People were freer than they had been in living memory to say what they thought; journalists freer to publish it. 

Things are different now. The recent Committee to Protect Journalists Award to Nadira Isayeva was a reminder of the huge challenges, and dangers, the press can face in Russia. The fact that the award was reported in some mainstream Russian media  was something, but the ongoing trial of two suspects in the killings of Stanislav Markelov and Anastasia Baburova shows the risks that Russian journalists run when they tackle tough stories.

Then there's Hungary, which unlike Russia, seemed clearly to have decided that its post-Soviet bloc future lay westwards. The creation of a new media authority there - putting power in the hands of politicians -  has led to criticism that the move amounts to curbs on press freedom. This has been denied by the Prime Minister, Viktor Orban.  Nowhere in the world do the media operate with complete freedom, and this is not a return to Stalinist censorship, but the press are not impressed.  

Still, there's always the internet, isn't there? Well, yes and no. It is true that in Russia, the web provides a platform for views which would be unlikely to be heard, or objectively reported, in the mainstream media. But in his new book, "The Net Delusion",  Evegeny Morozov challenges the extent to which the internet is an effective vehicle for attacking the government. His recent contribution to "The Sunday Times" on the subject was headlined "Why the world's secret police want you to join Facebook".

Social networking has become a new front in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Recent reports add to earlier suggestions that the Israeli Army and Hamas are both worried about the possible consequences of the incautious use of Facebook and other sites.  

Twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, technology offers unprecedented opportunity for journalists; politics means that using using them effectively is not necessarily easy, or safe.