Friday, March 14th, 2014
I’ve left some of the details purposefully vague for reasons that I hope are obvious.
A couple of years ago, I was in Russia working with a newspaper for the Media Development Investment Fund. While there, the publisher of the newspaper asked me to speak to her daughter’s university journalism class. I love talking to students about journalism so I quickly said yes.
A few hours before I was supposed to speak, the publisher took a phone. Russians have this singular ability to express displeasure without saying words. The publisher simply said in response to whatever was being said, “Awrrooo, awwrrrooo, awwrrooo,” was all I heard in her husky alto.
She got off the phone and had a quick chat with my Russian colleague. My colleague said, “The FSB has noticed you are here.” The FSB is the Russian Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB. The students had been talking about me on vKontakte, one of Russia’s most popular social networks, and they had called the dean of the journalism school.
My colleague continued, “They say, ‘Who is this Guardian guy. Why you no tell us?’”
My colleague tried to calm me down and told me not to worry. “Don’t worry. Last time Danish guy only detained for two days,” she said. I wasn’t comforted. I didn’t really care about being detained, well much, but it was Suw’s mother’s birthday the following Sunday. Suw is very particular about birthdays, especially the not missing part of them. At the moment I was more worried about that then the FSB, which I was pretty sure wouldn’t really care that much about me. However, in an abundance of caution, I let Suw know what was happening, and I told her to put the American embassy in Moscow on speed dial.
The publisher made a phone call to someone she thought had connections to the FSB, who could smooth things over. It must have worked because a few hours later, I was at the university speaking to a packed room of students in the international journalism programme.
I gave the presentation that I had intended to give about the changing world of journalism and the opportunities open for young journalists, and then I opened up the floor to questions. A few questions in, one student asked, “If you had to choose between writing a story critical of the government and going to jail, which would you choose?”
I quickly scanned the room, with the tune “One of these things does not belong” going through head. I was looking for the FSB agents or agents. No one jumped out, but I still took a moment to think carefully of what I was about to say. I simply said that thankfully I had never had to make that decision, and in fact, in Britain, if you didn’t criticise the government, you would face criticism not from the government but from your peers.
Things went pretty smoothly after that, but near the end, one of the students asked, “Would you care to comment on the press situation in Russia?” I looked at my colleague before responding, “No,” with a bit of a laugh. The room, fortunately, laughed with me. The student persisted, and I relented. I collected my thoughts, and then I said, “I am an American, who has worked in the US and the UK. For the past seven years, I’ve worked mostly in the UK. I miss the First Amendment every single day.”
As I said a few weeks back, I have come back to the US to take up an executive editor position overseeing a couple of newspapers. The picture above is from the stairs leading up to the newsroom of the Herald-Times-Reporter in Manitowoc Wisconsin, one of the two newspapers. When I saw the First Amendment written on the wall, it was a great welcome, back to the US and back into a newsroom.