by Paul Bowers
On Oct. 16, University of South Carolina journalism professor Randy Covington was helping to lead a small journalism workshop in St. Petersburg, Russia, when Russian immigration authorities entered the hotel where he was teaching and detained him.
Covington, who has worked as a TV news director and Associated Press newswriter, was in St. Petersburg teaching a workshop on investigative reporting with New England Center for Investigative Reporting Executive Director Joe Bergantino. Authorities detained Covington and Bergantino for five hours before releasing them and telling them they could not continue the workshop. The official line was that they had obtained the wrong kind of visa for the kind of work they were doing — a targeted tourist visa, which Covington says the U.S. State Department had recommended. But Covington says he had conducted workshops with the same visa before, and he thinks their detention was about more than a mere bureaucratic mix-up.
As a journalism student at USC, I had the good fortune to train under Covington. I called him last week to catch up and hear the details of his run-in with Russian authorities.
City Paper: You had trained journalists in Russia before this last incident, right?
Randy Covington: Yes, this was our fourth trip to Russia, but it was our first time doing something sensitive in the sense of investigative reporting. We'd done social media, we had done multi-platform journalism, but this investigative journalism is something that's not welcomed by [Russian President] Vladimir Putin and his friends.
CP: Obviously. When you talk to reporters over there, what are some of the challenges you hear about from them?
RC: It's a different world ... We were working in both Moscow and in St. Petersburg. We had recruited local journalists who do investigative reporting. The guy in Moscow, he's young, smart, and has broken some big stories and actually has won U.S. journalism awards for his work. In St. Petersburg we were working with an older journalist who has been doing investigative journalism and breaking stories for a long time and has a very distinguished record. So I'm talking to this St. Petersburg journalist, he is editor of multiple titles — there's a website and there are also some print publications — and he had a reporter killed. Worse yet, his news organization investigated, found considerable evidence of who was responsible for the killing, and nobody was interested in pursuing it. So it's not that things like that don't happen in the U.S., but they are more likely to happen in Russia.
The result of this, I think, is that there's inevitable self-censorship. So if you're a journalist in Russia and you found something that's going to make someone who's powerful uncomfortable, there may be a tendency to protect yourself and not to report that information. So there have been rather heavy-handed examples, particularly on the broadcast side, but even with [Russian news service] RIA Novosti where they threw out most of the leadership because it was too independent. Anyway, there are a number of examples where there have been overt efforts by the Russian government to suppress free press, but I would guess that more insidious is the ripple effect where any journalist in Russia who's covering the story is thinking that I could get in trouble, the publication could be closed down, there could be repercussions, and, quite frankly, I could get killed.
CP: I don't know if you saw it yet, but the dean of journalism at Boston University wrote a column recently about you and Joe Bergantino, and the headline was "How do you frighten political strongmen? Teach journalism."
RC: Why is it that our little two-day workshop for 15 people was the subject of a raid by law enforcement, and what subsequently came out from the court proceeding was that the raid had been ordered by the FSB? The FSB is the successor organization to the KGB, kind of a combination of our FBI and CIA, and the FSB was once headed by one Vladimir Putin. The FSB ordered the raid on our little journalism workshop. It was kind of a surreal experience, but it tells you a lot that people in power, people in authority are very troubled by the concept of a free and independent media.
CP: When you go to teach an investigative journalism seminar in a place with limited press freedoms, what are some ways you tailor it to the audience there?
RC: I can answer your question, but in a singular context, because we haven't done a lot of this. When we went into it, what we said was we're going to define investigative journalism broadly and let the participants define it as they wish, so it isn't "Let's come in and see how we can cause trouble for Vladimir Putin." No, it's "How can you supply information to the public that powerful people don't want them to know?"
In St. Petersburg just before the raid, we had gone around the room and each participant had talked about the kind of work they were doing, what they did. Probably the majority of the people in the room were doing environmental work as opposed to government corruption, and in this broader context I doubt if that's surprising.
CP: Because it's a safer subject to cover there?
RC: I'm just guessing; I'm no expert on it. So as Joe and I looked at it, we weren't going in and saying, "Let's stir up a revolution in Russia." No, far from it, we said we're going to steer clear of criticizing Putin, the government, anything else. We're just going to talk about fundamentals and techniques, we're going to talk about what is investigative journalism, we're going to talk about research, we're going to talk about data journalism, we're going to talk about the blocking and tackling that the participants in the workshop can then apply to any project they wish, whether it is political, whether it is criminal, whether it is environmental.
CP: Do you think that what happened to you was meant as a message to the journalists you were training?
RC: I think so. I think there were two messages. I think Message No. 1 was to the U.S. government: Don't send your journalists here to stir up trouble in Russia. Message No. 2: Journalists in Russia, you don't want to be doing this stuff. It's a bad idea. Again, it's a different mindset. It is widely accepted in Russia that the media should be a kind of PR arm of the government. Putin, we may look at him as a thug, is hugely popular in Russia, even among journalists, and that has little to do with his view on the media and much to do with rebuilding Russian pride. Still, the idea of a subservient media is not new in Russia.