Women journalists on the front line

by Simon Pirani

The women journalists who dominate Russia’s huge local newspaper sector hold the key to organising the profession, Nadezhda Azhgikhina of the Union of Journalists says.

“In the national media, the editors and senior journalists are men. But in the provinces, all the reporters are women, and very often the editors too.

“There are many local papers where the only male on staff is the driver. In some places, even the driver is a woman.”

The oil-driven economic boom has exacerbated the trend. Azhgikhina believes that strong demand for writing and research skills in business pulls male labour out of journalism.

“This ‘feminisation’ has gone too far. It’s important to have a balance of genders in any profession, and now we need to recruit more male journalists. In the university journalism faculties, men are as rare as women in a military academy!”

Azhgikhina, a pioneer campaigner for women’s rights and a founder member of the Association of Women Journalists, an activist group affiliated to the Union of Journalists, says: “Gender issues must not be separated from other issues.

“There is a pay differential of at least 30%. Men on a glossy magazine in Moscow will earn $3-5000 a month, women $2500.

“There is no social support, for single mothers in journalism for example. There is sexual harassment. These issues must be tackled along with low pay and generally poor conditions.

“Journalists in the provinces earn as little as $200 a month – and have little protection from any enemies they make as a result of the stories they write.”

Azhgikhina, who worked at Ogonyok (The Flame), the ground-breaking magazine of the glasnost era, and is now deputy general secretary for creative issues at the Union of Journalists, lauds local journalists’ contribution to Russia’s bitter struggle for free speech.

These unsung heroines, and heroes, have built on traditions of campaigning journalism that go back to Soviet times.

Lipetskaya Gazeta (The Lipetsk Newspaper) has run a campaign to encourage adoption of orphans, publishing the children’s and adoptive parents’ stories, and exposés of corruption in children’s homes.

“It’s a huge social problem in Russia”, explains Azhgikhina. “Children’s homes’ budgets are often corruptly misused by staff, who have a vested interest in discouraging adoptions.

“Lipetskaya Gazeta has arranged more than 1300 adoptions. They did a presentation at a Union of Journalists festival, to encourage others.”

Other successful campaigns include Radio Irkutsk’s, on services for the disabled, and those on breast-cancer monitoring and problems of cross-cultural marriages by Zhenshchina (Woman) magazine, based in Kazan. Provincial journalists often pay the price for telling the truth, and comprise a hefty proportion of post-Soviet Russia’s 2042 murdered journalists. An “iconic” case, Azgikhina says, is that of Larisa Iudina, editor of Sovetskaya Kalmykia – the only local paper consistently to criticise Kalmykia’s millionaire president, Kirsam Ilyumzhinov – who was murdered in 1998.

The Union of Journalists has a welfare scheme for the children of the victims, funding university education and other forms of support.

A version of this story appeared in The Journalist, March 2006.
Posted June 2006; © 2006 Simon Pirani


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