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A Free Press? Not This Time.

By Olga Ivanova
Friday, August 15, 2008

I wish I could fly back to Russia. I have been in the United States for a year, and I am studying and working here to get experience in American journalism, known worldwide for its independence and professionalism. But in recent days it has felt as though I am too late, that the journalism of Watergate is well behind us and that reporting is no longer fair and balanced.

For years I have respected American newspapers for being independent. But no longer. Coverage of the conflict between Russia and Georgia has been unprofessional, to say the least. I was surprised and disappointed that the world's media immediately took the side of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili last week.

American newspapers have run story after story about how "evil" Russia invaded a sovereign neighboring state. Many accounts made it seem as though the conflict was started by an aggressive Russia invading the Georgian territory of South Ossetia. Some said that South Ossetia's capital, Tskhinvali, was destroyed by the Russian army. Little attention was paid to the chronology of events, the facts underlying the conflict.

Last week, Georgia's president invaded South Ossetia during the night, much as Adolf Hitler invaded Russia in 1941. Within hours, Georgian troops destroyed Tskhinvali, a city of 100,000, and they killed more than 2,000 civilians. Almost all of the people who died that night were Russian citizens. They chose to become citizens of Russia years ago, when Georgia refused to recognize South Ossetia as a non-Georgian territory.

The truth is that, in this case, Russian aggression actually made some sense. Russia defended its citizens.

Yet American newspapers published stories that omitted mention of the Georgian invasion. And American media as a whole have been disturbingly pro-Georgian. The lead photograph on the front page of Sunday's Post showed two men -- one dead, the other crying -- amid ruins in Gori, Georgia. Many other images could have been used. Monday's Wall Street Journal, for example, contained several stories about the conflict and even an op-ed by Saakashvili. Where was the Russian response?

I understand why the Georgian government would block access to Russian media Web sites. I understand why Russian media would present events in a light that favors Moscow's actions. But American media are not supposed to do the equivalent.

The much-revered American principle of a free press guarantees access to an independent source of information. It is supposed to mean that nobody takes a side, that journalists give readers the facts and let them draw their own conclusions. The Georgian president quickly became a chief newsmaker for Western media outlets, yet little could be found to explain the Russian side.

It's hard to understand how and why the terrible situation between Georgia and Russia has played out this way. Everything seemed too clear for the journalists writing about the conflict: Big, evil Russia tried to destroy small, democratic Georgia.

And the American media's willingness to choose sides provoked Russian media outlets. Russian newspapers did not waste time reminding readers that the true evil was the United States and that Washington was ultimately responsible for the conflict in Ossetia and Georgia.

Beyond the slanted coverage, I am also concerned about the lack of information on the number of civilians killed and wounded. How should we know which accounts to trust?

Over the past week, American media have achieved one thing for sure: They have lost prestige among a generation of young Russians who believed that America is a country of true, uncorrupted, independent information. Many Russian youths come to the United States for college and then go back to Russia to help build our own democracy. Russians believe in democracy. But I don't know whether many Russians will ever trust American media reports again.

U.S. newspapers have lost esteem among Russian journalists as well. These reporters have long looked to American newspapers as icons of quality journalism. They are supposed to stand for truth and serve the people's interests. But whose interests did newspapers serve by publishing stories in the best traditions of the Cold War?

I think that both the Russian and Georgian governments attacked civilians. I blame the governments for this war. But I am also saddened by the unfair coverage of the conflict from Russian and American media. If this is what freedom of the press looks like, then I no longer want to believe in this freedom. I prefer to stay neutral and independent, just like a professional journalist has to do.

The writer, a master's degree candidate at Duquesne University, is an intern at The Post.

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