Online news agency cautiously thrives in Russia

Russian journalists know that garnering the attention of authorities can be dangerous. When writing about topics like crime and corruption, it can also be easy. However, Gregory Shvedov, editor of online news agency Kavkazsky Uzel, (Caucasian Knot), isn’t worried about the Kremlin knocking on his door.

“We don’t have a door,” he explained. “We don’t have a newsroom at all.”

Shvedov’s publication is totally digital, and focuses on a region that the Russian government would prefer not to discuss–the North Caucasus. The entire operation is conducted online without a central office. Shvedov and his team of 50 journalists use free Google programs to create a virtual newsroom so that they can be connected even as they are dispersed throughout the region.

The result of this model is a comprehensive project that illuminates a vast and complicated region. More than that, however, the site is a forum for discussion. Kavkazsky Uzel’s readers are invited to go online and share what they see. They can even send SMS messages to the site, which promises to publish reports from local residents 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Shvedov’s work earned him an invitation to World Press Freedom Day in Washington on May 3. His impression of the event was mixed.

“I see a lot of interest in talking about new media, but less about specific projects and working on new media,” he said.

Kavkazsky Uzel, Shvedov said, is the kind of project Russia needs across the country. Despite the fact that millions of Russians are connected to the Internet, the government has not as heavily censored it as traditional forms of media. Because of that relative freedom, Kavkazsky Uzel has been able to publish stories that would likely never be seen in Russian print, he said.

And the site is thriving. On search engines like Google and its main competitor in Russia, Yandex, stories compete with those of mainstream media outlets. The site has also expanded its readership by forming partnerships with independent radio station Ekho Moskvy and the BBC. The most important thing, said Shvedov, is that the quality of the journalism remain intact.

“We don’t look for sensational material,” he said. “It’s not important for us to be first. It’s important to get context.”

In a place where oligarchs control media with money, and government officials use journalists as their mouthpieces, contextualizing is difficult. It is also dangerous. The fact that the site has no central office offers it some protection, but Shvedov knows he and his staff are still at risk because they are not hiding. They call government officials, they ask questions, and they openly go to places where they aren’t wanted.

Shvedov said that he doesn’t know when the Russian government will truly crack down on the Internet: “Maybe it could change tomorrow, maybe it could change today,” he said. In the meantime, however, he told me that Kavkazsky Uzel is looking for more partners.