News Director for Russia, Ukraine, Georgia and CIS, Associated Press
Kate de Pury spoke to Women in Foreign Policy about how the fall of the Soviet Union started her career in journalism and lead to her reporting on Russia, Putin, and wars in Chechnya and Georgia for a global audience.
Could you describe what your role as Director of Associated Press (“AP”) Russia and CIS entails?
On a daily basis, my job is to direct the news for Russia and the former Soviet states in three formats: text, video and photos. I am generally in AP's office in Moscow, but we also have bureaus in Belarus, Ukraine and Georgia. So there may be protests in Armenia and that is your main news story for the day, or an election in Georgia, or you might have most of the news coming from Russia on that day. My job is to get the day up and running and make sure everyone has a clear direction. This process happens in conjunction with the Europe editors in London and with the overnight desk in New York. It is important that we don’t present stories that are too insular, we want to report the story in a way that a Western audience understands and is interested.
My job also entails networking with press services in the Kremlin and at the Russian Foreign Ministry, as well as with other official bodies and major Russian companies. I am also source building on a regular basis, so I have a lot of meetings every week with officials but also with Russian journalists, parliamentary deputies or the head of an organization like Medecins Sans Frontieres in Russia. It is my job to do that networking and also to enable key members of my staff to do the same.
The other part of my work that I would like to highlight is the importance of keeping people safe. When your staff are reporting from a conflict situation, you make sure everyone has the necessary training and safety gear. We regularly travel to Syria with the Russian Ministry of Defense and we have to make sure that our journalists have had hostile environment training and each have a flack jacket, helmet and medical kit. Keeping people safe isn’t just a concern in a conflict zone, it is also important closer to home. If we are covering a protest and sending a crew and photographers, we need to make sure they do not operate alone, that they all know where the others are and have a way to communicate (often a WhatsApp chat because things often turn quite rough in Russia and elsewhere on this patch. Staying safe is also about understanding the boundaries of what you can and can’t report here. We do not send inexperienced crews to do a story where they may not be able to make a judgment on the boundaries of safety. A journalist in Russia needs to know when they can or can’t push a story - perhaps about a Russian troll for example - so that they don’t get arrested, or how to stay safe when reporting a hostage-taking or criminal story.
You mentioned source building. How do you approach keeping sources safe in Russia?
Russia is the kind of place where you get a lot of unnamed sources. Many meetings happen strictly to gain background information and those sources will never go on record, even as an unnamed source. But those meetings help you understand the story better and these sources who you speak with may direct you towards someone else who is willing to go on the record. When assessing a source you need to make sure you know the person, or someone who knows them and that you believe the source to be credible. If you get an agreement to use their information as an unnamed source, you and the editor still need to know their identity and verify this, even if it will never be revealed. But as I say, in Russia many sources won’t agree to be cited, even as an unnamed source.
Do you ever encounter sources who are willing to go on the record, but you think it would be unsafe for them to do so?
There was an interesting case that occurred when we were trying to break the story of Russian soldiers in east Ukraine. A reporter working on the story found a soldier who confirmed that at the end of their national service period, they were offered three-month professional contracts for good pay and not told where they were going. Our reporter managed to find the soldier who was willing to confirm that those contracts were to send soldiers to the war in Ukraine.
The soldier was a proper, credible source and he was willing to go on camera, show his face and be named by his full name. However, we had to make sure this 19-year-old young man knew and understood the possible dangers of what he was doing and what that might entail for him. We decided, in conjunction with the editor in New York, that we would use his first name but not his surname and would not put him on camera. We felt the responsibility to care for our source was important in this case, as he was very young and we didn’t think he understood how dangerous it would be. We didn’t want the AP to be comprised by behaving in an irresponsible fashion towards a source.
How did you end up being an editor who has to make these types of decisions? How did you end up in Russia doing what you do now?
I came to Russia as a student in 1986. My background is in television, so I started as a student on a British Council Scholarship at the Moscow Film School. I worked on a feature film with some other students from the Moscow Film School in St Petersburg the month that the Berlin Wall came down and I witnessed the last communist November 7th celebrations in what was then Leningrad, as the wall was coming down in Germany. From that point, communism started to collapse across Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union and a huge news story began.
My Russian language skills were in demand and I came back to Russia to work for the television news agency Visnews that later became Reuters. I fell in love with journalism and the fall of the Soviet Union and its legacy is arguably a story that is still going on. I consider myself immensely privileged to have found this area of work and to have witnessed this amazing story.
I’m sure being in Leningrad for the collapse of the Soviet Union was a very memorable experience. What are some other career highlights for you?
I also covered the war in Nagorno-Karabakh and Transnistria as a young television journalist, working with international, Russian and local crews. Working in Nagorno-Karabakh, we were often in quite dangerous situations and needed to stay safe and tell the story- it was a very early lesson in hostile environments. Of course, the technology at that stage was slower compared to the rapid delivery of information we have now. Back then you were often working with local TV stations to feed your video and that had its own challenges and rewards, as one met some formidable local TV editors!
I also covered the Chechnya war from 1994 to 1995 (that was the war that western journalists were allowed to report on). It was a seminal experience for me in terms of conflict reporting, with TV crews and photographers out in a real war, with Russians planes bombing Grozny. It was frightening and we were extremely lucky and stayed safe, but that was not true for all our colleagues, very sadly.
From 2008, I was in Moscow coordinating a team that covered the Russian-Georgian war for Reuters. We got the story but had some bad situations where our crews were under fire. We didn’t lose anyone and in the end, that was the most important thing, even more important than the story. This is a crucial thing to remember at all times when reporting in a conflict zone.
Those stories and the continuing Putin political narrative have been highlights. The Putin story fascinates the world and finding ways to report that story meaningfully has been challenging and satisfying.
We often hear about the decline of print media and the shift to video and digital media, however it tends to be from the viewpoint of a lamenting print journalist. As a journalist with a focus on video, how do you view that shift from print media?
As a visual journalist, I have always had enormous respect for the photographers and camera crews who in conflict have to be in the line of fire to get footage. So I am glad that visual journalisms is stepping into its rightful place and is as respected as it is today.
However, there are stories that are better told in text and by print journalists. For example, Putin’s political story is primarily a text story. Visual journalists get the Putin press appearances and conferences to hang around the story, but the real story is one of sources who don't want to be named so you can't put them on camera, documents that are provided by sources and really good analysis which works best in text form. That said, the most rewarding stories can be those where multimedia works to deliver the best of each format in one story.
As a journalist who has spent the last three decades on the ground in Russia, what is your view of press freedom in Russia and under President Putin’s regime?
There is a good book by Arkady Ostrovsky on the way that the Russian press has developed since the 90s, under Yeltsin and then Putin. Ostrovsky shows that the Russian tradition of managing the media is not just a Putin phenomenon; it began at the end of the Yeltsin years with the election in 1996 when the media was quite significantly managed around that election. So the current level of state control is not just a Putin phenomenon, but it is undoubtedly true that the that it is significantly stronger now than in the 1990s and the early Putin years.
You have to understand that there is a propaganda machine, which is the state media. It is important to watch it and understand the message they are giving to the Russian viewer and public. For example, on MH17 and the Skripal case, state media has been employed to put out numerous and completely unfounded versions of what happened. It is my job to know them, to understand what role they play, and that they are not true.
It is difficult for me, as I have to maintain a diplomatic position here. In my current role, I have a relationship with Russian officialdom and I have to speak with them on a regular basis. That keeps the bureau functioning and gives AP access to the centres of power, which includes people in the media, as well as in politics. So I watch state television and see it for what it is but I still need to have a relationship with those in power and their media.
Do you experience pressure from the Russian government regarding what you publish?
We do experience pressure, although it is nothing like the pressure that Russian journalists experience. We often have demands from officials to provide our questions in advance of an interview and to allow them a final edit of the articles, which is not allowed on a news story. Those types of requests arise because people grew up and function in this media environment where they don’t think anything is wrong with that. They think that is the way state media works because it is seen widely as a propaganda tool in Russia. When we explain to them that is not how the AP operates, it often results in people refusing to do an interview. I’ve had calls through the night with accusations of censorship as I wouldn’t give a high-up official the final say on an interview that was to be published.
Within that media environment in Russia, there is a strand of independent Russian journalism that is pretty amazing. They are smart, professional journalists and operate in extremely difficult circumstances. For political stories, it is these brave Russian journalists who are breaking the news, not the Western journalists. It was Russian journalists who broke the story about the troll factory and the mercenaries in Syria - and those are dangerous stories to cover.
In the recent Presidential election in Russia, Ksenia Sobchak was the sole female candidate. What are your views on her candidacy and the coverage of her campaign?
I interviewed Ksenia Sobchak and she is very much the Moscow urban candidate: sophisticated, smart and a natural politician. I think her long term political project is genuine and her portrayal as an opportunist and “the Putin plan” by the western media is not entirely justified.
I do not doubt that she was part of Putin’s plan, but that is only one side of the story. She drew the liberal, middle class, opposition-leaning vote. People who might have boycotted the vote because Alexei Navalny was barred from running certainly saw her as an opposition candidate and voted for her. She is in it for the long haul.
I presume at some stage she will become the opposition leader within the system for the next election and beyond and that is what she genuinely believes herself. Ksenia Sobchak comes from a family that was inside the Soviet system and was then inside the new Russian political elite. She knows how to operate inside the system and she says she wouldn't operate outside the current political system, believing she needs to be inside the system to change it. The question is whether the system will allow her to do that.
What would be your advice for any aspiring foreign reporters/multimedia journalists?
Learn languages and go to the country that you want to work in. One day you will be in the right place at the right time, or you will have a source that produces a story that will run in the New York Times or somewhere like that. You do need languages for that and some countries are difficult to work in (for example, you need to get a journalist visa in Russia).
On the video and multimedia side, every journalist needs to understand how to produce stories in pictures and video, as well as text. There are some brilliant apps already on your phone that you can use. It is not just a sequence of raw video; you can already produce quite sophisticated multimedia on your phone. Don’t be intimidated by the tech but do stay clear-sighted: make sure you have a story to tell and then figure out how to do it.