The Tully Center for Free Speech

Free Speech Zone

Tough Questions from Moscow

By Roy Gutterman, November 30, 2014

The Moscow Readings Conference drew scholars from all over the world – China, Hungary, Germany, Finland, Belgium, Austria and Australia. I was one of two American professors at the conference at Lomonosov Moscow State University, one of Russia’s biggest universities and perhaps the most prestigious journalism school in the country.

The university, founded in 1755, has hosted this conference for the past six years, drawing scholars and speakers from around the world to discuss cutting-edge media issues.  The journalism school, housed in the former mansion of an 18-century scientist, sits across the street from Red Square and the Kremlin.

It was quite a juxtaposition to give lectures on the impact of modern intellectual property law on free speech as well as media independence and other free speech values in a place where these issues are still being developed and are frequently challenged.

Additionally, discussions about media these days percolate in the shadow of Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower who is living in exile in Russia.  Snowden was a major figure on Russian television especially the two English-language channels available on my hotel cable television.

Snowden was also a frequent source of questions from fellow academics at the conference. In some circles, Snowden is regarded as a criminal and enemy of the U.S. government, because of his leaks of classified documents. Because of this standing, he has gained a degree of support and admiration from others around the world, especially some of the scholars at the conference. His impact on an international discussion of government power, surveillance, whistleblowing, journalism sourcing and other issues, however, cannot be questioned.

In addition to presenting a paper and serving as a respondent to a slate of other papers, I spoke to two classes at the university.  Presenting lectures on American free press values and intellectual property law to international audiences is nothing new for me.  The questions from students were somewhat predicable and probing.  Snowden, too, came up in these sessions. And so did skepticism about the independence of American media.  These private businesses, owned by corporations, often publicly-traded for-profit corporations, and media conglomerates or individual modern press barons raised eyebrows for some students who are still unaccustomed to independent media.

Others openly refused to accept that the U.S. government does not control editorial or television content or own its own publications or television stations.  One student was adamant that American government websites were the equivalent of modern media.

This was a point that I must admit took me by surprise and presented another difficult explanation.  It also raised an interesting point that I had not entirely considered before.  I always considered government websites as sources of general information more akin to a telephone book or directory or something utilitarian. Perhaps, I take government websites for granted and do not pay them enough consideration.  Then again, how often does anyone pay much attention to a telephone directory? When was the last time anyone actually used a telephone book?

Even if a government website is a form of propaganda, I tried to explain, the independent media can use the content, check the content and question the content.  Still, a handful of students remained convinced that government websites were media akin to newspapers, magazines, television stations or independent websites.

To the students questioning me in Russia, government websites present information, editorial content and ostensibly propaganda. The distinction between media and a government website to the questioners was indistinguishable, which opened up my eyes to a different way of thinking. My eyes are more open thanks to some students in Russia.

Roy S. Gutterman is an associate professor of communications law and journalism and director of the Tully Center for Free Speech at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.