Medical and Public Health Concerns: Off-Limits in the Russian Press
‘The problem facing public health reporters is not the police; it’s a medical system with little transparency and fear of unemployment.’
In December, Kent State University professors Karl Idsvoog, a 1983 Nieman Fellow, and Max Grubb visited the Tomsk Media Group in Tomsk, Siberia as part of an IREX/Kent State University media development project to help TV2 improve its internal journalistic and business training programs. In the following article, they share their observations about pressures that most reporters are facing in Russia today when they try to cover public health issues and dangerous medical situations.
Regardless of topic, reporters have to get sources on the record for their story to have credibility. Those who have something to lose if they speak openly and honestly about a public health problem are understandably hesitant to talk to reporters, especially when what they might lose is their job. In today’s Russia, a combination of history, economics, and the rule of Vladimir Putin, citizens who don’t ask and journalists who often don’t dare combine to put health reporting on the critical list.
To know where we are today, it is important to understand a bit about Russian economic, medical and journalistic history. Under the Soviet system, medical care was free but lousy. Economic conditions for the average family were equally lousy. Consumer goods? Forget it. The press was propaganda, not journalism. For journalists, Boris Yeltsin’s election to the presidency is remembered as a time of incredible freedom and economic turmoil. The shift to a market economy made many citizens wish for the Soviet times.
Then comes Putin. The economy, political stability, and the standard of living go forward, free press goes backwards, except in a city in Siberia. That city is Tomsk, and the year was 1991, the year of Yeltsin’s election. A group of like-minded independent journalists came together there to form the Tomsk Media Group. TV station—TV2—today still surprises anyone who visits. “When people come from Moscow and they see what kind of news we cover,” says News Director Yulia Muchnik, “they ask how come you still function, how come you’re not shut down?”
Station Manager Svetlana Serena agrees journalism has “stopped” in nearly all of Russia since Putin rose to power. But her station pushes on with its commitment to producing solid journalism, focusing on local news for the citizens of Tomsk. The company’s charter calls for the station to provide viewers “truthful, complete and verifiable information.” In a country where it’s common for businessmen and politicians to pay journalists to do favorable stories, TV2’s code of ethics strictly prohibits this. Managing Editor Victor Muchnik, Yulia’s brother, warns new hires they’ll be fired for violating the code and lets his new journalists know “there are no sacred cows.” He means it.
Indeed, TV2 has done stories it knows local officials won’t like, and they’ve paid the price. After reporting how a businessman died under questionable circumstances while in police custody, the police department banned TV2 reporters from press conferences and posted officers outside the station who proceeded to check licenses and identification paperwork on every reporter and photographer leaving the building.
No Transparency, No Watchdogs
The problem facing public health reporters is not the police; it’s a medical system with little transparency and fear of unemployment. Victor and Yulia Muchnik come from a family of doctors. They describe their mother as an “expert on medical mistakes,” mistakes she won’t talk about. Victor describes the current Russian medical system as “one of the most closed for journalism.” As he puts it, “You may never find truth, because no one will share it with you.”
For medical stories, it’s often a source of frustration for both the press and the public. The people of Tomsk have come to realize, recognize and respect that reporters of TV2 are not spouting government propaganda. By aggressively covering local news, TV2 has developed a loyal viewership. “When people have troubles,” says Yulia Muchnik, “they always contact us. They say please come and help us.” But when the “troubles” involve medicine, a hospital or a doctor, for the journalist it’s almost like being back in the Soviet time. The story can’t be told.
TV2 reporter Maxim Voronin says he has lots of medical sources. Reporting on a new medical procedure or the opening of a new operating room is never a problem. If it’s positive, people talk. But if there’s a case of medical malpractice, if it’s anything of a critical nature, there are no quotes to be had. “There’s an insider culture,” says Voronin. And if there are serious medical mistakes, he says there is a “desire to conceal.”
In Russia, there are no public watchdogs, no Dr. Sidney Wolfe, compiling lists of dangerous doctors, dangerous medical devices, and dangerous drugs. For a reporter, says Voronin, “It’s very hard to acquire impartial, objective proof of any medical mistake.” And although there have been several cases of what Victor Muchnik describes as “self-trials, lynching [of doctors] by patients who thought they were harmed because of doctors’ mistakes,” there’s no demand from the Russian citizenry for more vigorous health reporting.
Nelly Krecheova, the director of international and regional relations for the Tomsk Regional Government, who once tried unsuccessfully to start a public TV station, says Tomsk is fortunate to have TV2 because the state channels “do not want to raise those issues which could generate too much discussion in public.” When it comes to medical information, the loser is the public, but they don’t seem to care. “Now the philosophy is don’t worry, the state is going to solve all your problems, just don’t worry, and this is a habit. Russians are accustomed to that. We are accustomed to getting advice from (and not questioning) the state,” Krecheova says.
In Russia, people have more money to spend and seem interested in commercial goods and not in demanding a freer press in a country where the Kremlin has left no doubt that critical reporting is not welcome. Still, the Tomsk Media Group says it plans to stay true to its mission. “We decided for ourselves that as long as we can work and function being free and without censorship, we will go on,” says Yulia Muchnik.