Beth Knobel On Being A Foreign Correspondent In Russia

(CBS)
This week, more than 1,700 top newspaper editors from around the world are meeting in Moscow for the World Association of Newspapers Congress' annual convention. The meetings, notes the BBC, opened "with harsh criticism of Russia's media freedom." Russian President Vladimir Putin defended himself against charges that the state was trying to increase its control of the press. "There is still very widespread skepticism, both inside and outside your country, about whether there exists any real willingness to see the media become a financially strong, influential and independent participant in Russian society today," World Association of Newspapers Congress President Gavin O'Reilly told Putin.

We wanted to know a little more about what it's like to be a reporter in Russia, and so we turned to CBS News Moscow correspondent Beth Knobel, who has been reporting from Russia since the early 1990s. Below you'll find her dispatch on the rules for reporters in Putin's Russia, how the situation has changed since the administration of former president Boris Yeltsin, and how if you think the American press corps sometimes asks softball questions, you've never been to a Russian press conference.

In a few days, I'll be celebrating an anniversary -- 14 years since I moved to Russia to become a foreign correspondent.

It was June, 1992. The Soviet Union had just fallen apart. Boris Yeltsin, the Russian president, was still seen as a hero for facing down a hard-line coup attempt. And being a foreign correspondent here was a really big deal.

Back then, a request from a foreign media organization made bureaucrats jump. One phone call was enough to guarantee an interview with just about any government official. Officials actually WANTED to talk with us.

But now, things have changed. Being a foreign reporter in Putin's Russia can be a frustrating experience.

There's no problem dealing with ordinary Russians. Getting out into the field is still almost always a terrific and fun experience. The Russians are a warm and wonderful people, and are exceedingly kind to foreigners. We've literally had people share their last loaf of bread with us...along with their last bottle of vodka.

The tough part is dealing with officialdom. Organizing interviews with ministers and other high ranking government officials often takes literally months. We can go for weeks on end without getting an invitation to come to the Kremlin.

It wasn't like that when Putin first became president. In fact, the administration went out of its way during 2000 and 2001, just after Putin came into office, to let us get to know the top people in the government.

The meetings took place in a small underground cafe called "Four Sides" on the famous Arbat pedestrian mall. Over coffee and tea, we were allowed to chat with Putin's team -- from his chief of staff to the Foreign Minister. It was a very useful way for us to learn what they were thinking, and an easy way for them to gauge foreign opinion.

But then, the Kremlin's interest in the foreign media cooled. Why? Perhaps because as Russia has become economically stronger, it has become less interested in what the international community thinks overall. And that means less attention to the foreign media.

The Putin administration now puts most of its energy into managing the Russian press -- particularly television. All of Russia's national television channels now take their orders from the Kremlin. The stations are either directly controlled by the government, or by businesses friendly to the government.

And there is a small pool of Russian reporters who cover Russian president Vladimir Putin every day for television and major newspapers. The members of this so-called "Kremlin Pool" are the only people who get regular access to Putin. That way, the Kremlin can focus its efforts on getting the pool reporters to put the right spin on their stories.

The rest of us only get the rare glance of the president -- during his yearly press conference, or on the rare cases where we are invited to the Kremlin to shoot something. Putin only gives interviews to the foreign press before he travels abroad, except for rare exceptions like the interview he gave to CBS last year, before the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II.

At times, that policy makes me feel like a Sovietologist of the 1970s, having to piece together what's really going on inside the government.

Putin's press secretary, Alexsei Gromov, never holds briefings -- even though President Boris Yeltsin's press secretaries held a briefing almost every Friday for years. That leaves us with little way to discover the president's plans, or to ask questions about government policy.

And the Kremlin press service is not particularly useful as a source of information. I sometimes think they're specially trained NOT to answer questions. Here's what you usually hear when you call the Kremlin press service:

KREMLIN: "Hello, this is the duty officer."
CBS: "Hello, this is Alexsei Kuznetsov, a producer at CBS News. With whom am I speaking?"
KREMLIN: "With the duty officer of the presidential press service."
CBS: "Don't you have a name?"
KREMLIN: (angry) "What is your question?!?!"
CBS: "Okay, could you possibly please tell me what the president's plans are for next week?"
KREMLIN: "No, I cannot. I cannot give out that information for security reasons. Thank you for calling."

Putin's yearly press conference is another perfect example of how the Kremlin tries to keep the foreign media from asking too many uncomfortable questions.

Instead of arranging a press conference just for the foreign press, President Putin holds just one press conference per year for everyone. The Kremlin not only invites the international press corps and representatives of the national media, but also hundreds of journalists from regional and city papers and TV stations.

By inviting the local media, the Kremlin insures that the majority of the questions will focus on local issues instead of more difficult international ones. The local reporters are so impressed by being inside the Kremlin that their questions tend to be fawning, like this one from this year's presser from a journalist from the city of Nizhny Novgorod. I am NOT making this up:

"Mr President, to be honest, when I came here I also wanted to ask serious and intelligent questions, but now that our discussion is into its third hour, I realize that I'm just going to have to pull myself together and on behalf of all the blond women in this room ask what is perhaps a stupid and silly question: what do you do to always stay looking so good? Do you use anything particular to restore your youth and good looks?"

To the Russians' credit, they do become more media friendly if you can get to the top to ask. When a group of foreign reporters met Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov for a cup of tea and a chat two years ago, the BBC correspondent asked the minister point blank to allow his press service to comment on breaking news stories, as opposed to always saying, "No comment." He pointed out that foreign media could not give Russia's side of the story unless someone would actually speak with the press. Since then, the press service of the Defense Ministry has become quite helpful.

But in some ways, I sometimes feel like I've returned to the Soviet Union. First of all, you can flip on the TV and receive a good dose of government propaganda. Secondly, you have to cultivate sources now the way that foreign reporters did during Soviet days. That's the only way to find out what's really going on behind the Kremlin walls. Thirdly, you have to deal with much tighter security everywhere you want to shoot. We have our documents checked regularly now when we're out on the streets filming, and find there are many more hoops to jump through when we want to arrange to film at any public place.

Luckily for us, the Kremlin seems to have become more interested in the foreign press during the last few weeks, because they've got an important event coming up soon. Russia will be hosting the annual G-8 summit this July in St. Petersburg, and hundreds of foreign reporters will be pouring in to cover the event.

In an attempt to make sure Russia will make a good impression, the Russians have done something unprecedented: they've hired the American firm Ketchum Public Relations to help manage the foreign media.

Here's my advice to Ketchum: talk the Putin administration into loosening up just a bit -- not just now, but always. Let us interview ministers the same month we ask for an interview. Let the Kremlin start holding weekly briefings to fill us in on the president's plans. Trot out officials again now and then for a cup of coffee and a chat.

Having seen the Kremlin tighten the reigns on the foreign press during my 14 years here, I'm sure I liked the old way best.