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VOA Interview: Russian Journalist Says News Blackout on Tsarnaev Trial Possible

  • VOA News

Alexey Venediktov heads the influential radio station and Web site Ekho Moskvy, one of the last remaining independent media outlets in Russia.

Alexey Venediktov heads the influential radio station and Web site Ekho Moskvy, one of the last remaining independent media outlets in Russia.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is a child of Russia and its Soviet legacy. The youngest son of a Chechen man and an Avar woman, born in southern Russia, raised in Kyrgyzstan, his eldest brother born in Kalmykia, his relatives scattered throughout Dagestan, in Russia’s North Caucasus.

Yet Russian-language news coverage of the man on trial for 2013 Boston Marathon bombing has been largely non-existent.

Tsarnaev, 21, faces the possibility of the death penalty after a Boston jury convicted him of 30 terrorism and other related charges for the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil since Sept. 11, 2001, an attack that killed three people and maimed scores.

One of the only major news outlets with regular reporting on the trial is Ekho Moskvy, an independent, influential radio station and news Web site in Moscow. The station’s coverage of the trial has been based entirely on the tweets and reports from VOA Russian Service reporter Fatima Tlisova, who has been in the Boston federal courthouse every day of the Tsarnaev trial. The reporting has been shared, re-tweeted, re-published and commented on by tens of thousands of Russians.

The station’s editor-in-chief, Alexei Venediktov, spoke to Tlisova in an exclusive interview this week:

QUESTION: Mr. Venediktov, what is your impression of the process in Boston?

VENEDIKTOV: I’m closely following the process and trying my utmost to distribute information about it because there’s practically no information about it in Russia. Of course, there’s extreme interest in the charges and the defense, and, mainly, the witnesses testifying in court. I think we know about this only through American TV shows like “Law and Order” and “The Good Wife,” and “Boston Legal.” And that it’s happening before our very eyes, that the explosion at the Boston Marathon happened before our very eyes, this of course adds to the interest, from my perspective. And of course the main question now is the question of the death penalty, because in Russia there is no death penalty, but attitudes toward it are positive: 62-plus percent of Russians support the return of the death penalty. I think that the jury’s verdict will be actively discussed in Russia, if it will be for the death penalty.

QUESTION: You said that in Russia this trial hasn’t appeared in the press. Why is that? Is it due to the absence of interest in society or for other reasons?

VENEDIKTOV: This process isn’t being explored in the press for several reasons, it seems to me. Firstly, from Russia’s point of view, there’s the participation of Russian citizens, convicted terrorists. These are citizens of Russia, although formally they were American citizens. They’re immigrants from Russia, immigrants from the Caucasus, where, as you know, there is a very delicate relationship between the leadership of (Chechnya), in particular (Chechen President Ramzan) Kadyrov and the leadership of the security agencies, so it’s possible (the trial) may seem inappropriate. And then this coincides with the mood connected with the murder of (opposition figure Boris) Nemtsov, where like with the Tsarnaev brothers there are no “customers,” in our understanding… And therefore this process causes unpleasant associations, I think, for the leadership, in particular, of the Russian Federation and therefore, I think, it’s possible there’s been an embargo (of news) put into place.

QUESTION: A lot of people are writing me via Twitter that they are struck by the difference in the judicial processes in the United States versus Russia. They note something significant and so perhaps the Russian authorities wouldn’t like such information being publicly accessible?

VENEDIKTOV: Yes, this is evident of course, judging by your Tweets and judging by the Boston English-language newspapers that are accessible: that the court is closely examining material evidence, first and foremost. This is the unseen history of how FBI officers prove, for example, not simply that “he hit me”… or “he robbed me,” but how they investigate each genuine piece of proof, pressure cookers like the ones the bombs were made from, how they carefully investigate the photographs that were displayed in the court room. That doesn’t happen in Russia in any judicial process connected with mass disturbances…. We’ve had judges say openly that the police have no reason to deceive anyone, therefore it ends up being one person’s word against another’s, police versus the accused. The judges say ‘We always trust the police,’ just like the prosecutors say. It isn’t like that in Boston: every statement by the police is investigated, the defense truly works. I think that this is an important moment.

QUESTION: Is the Boston court an example to illustrate the question of the independence of the judicial system in Russia?

VENEDIKTOV: Look, the Boston court is very important from the point of view of the functioning of the jury. You know that in Russia, they’ve cut back the number of cases that can be heard by a jury. The highest state authorities and top court leaders think it’s necessary to reduce the number of cases heard by juries: ‘jurors know nothing about jurisprudence, they acquit guilty people’ et cetera. And here (in Boston) is a demonstration of how juries work, how the judges interact with juries, how prosecutors and the defense interact with juries. This is of course a very important story. Unfortunately in Russia we’re seeing just the opposite process.

QUESTION: How great is the attention and the demands of your audience for this information, what's being published in the blog (on the Ekho Moskvy Web site) about the Boston trial?

VENEDIKTOV: We see the blog is being read and discussed by tens of thousands of people, but, I’ll say it once again, it is obvious that this form of “tweet reporting” is new for us, and therefore we don’t have enough information about it. Russian reporters don’t report like this, not on television, not in newspapers, only on this blog and only on Twitter is this happening. This is of course very little, in my opinion; it could be more. In my opinion, this is very current, interesting, “cognitive,” and instructive information for us, and for possible jurors in the future.

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