A publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne

Anna Nemtsova: feeding the beast from Russia’s frontline

Anna Nemtsova knows what it’s like to risk her life for a story.

Words by Kate Stanton
 
Anna Nemtsova: sending dispatches from “places where I still believe I’m needed”. PIC: Denis Sinyakov

Anna Nemtsova: sending dispatches from “places where I still believe I’m needed”. PIC: Denis Sinyakov

The Russian-born freelancer has spent nearly two decades reporting from one of the most dangerous beats in the world — the frontlines of conflict in Russia and Ukraine, where reporters are often ignored, antagonised or worse.

But she loves the work despite it’s dangers. 

“There’s no better job in the world,” she told The Citizen. “I’m a crisis reporter. I’m a field reporter. So I go to places where I still believe I’m needed.”

Nemtsova started filing reports from Russia in 2000, after a chance meeting with a Washington Post correspondent in Moscow. She has since covered major stories across the former USSR for Western media outlets, including  NewsweekThe Daily BeastForeign Policy and Marie Claire.

“Authorities [in Russia] often see reporters as an information soldier in an information war. Either defending the motherland or attacking it.” — Anna Nemtsova

In recent years, she has reported from the trenches of the conflict in Ukraine. She spoke to children who saw the downing of MH17. She watched police crack down on protesters of Russia’s elections. Nemtsova has done this without health insurance or even her own gear, which she has to rent for her assignments. 

She used to work at Newsweek’s Russia bureau, which eventually shut down. But she says she prefers the life of a freelancer to office work. 

“I have more time. I don’t need to get to the office every day. I can work from a coffee shop and go to the field.

“It’s a waste to have all these offices to be honest with you.”

Nemtsova says the best way to report an event is to witness it, an increasingly difficult ask for cash-strapped journalists. 

“The best newspapers we have in the world — The New York TimesBBC News — they are all about reporting, to see things with your own eyes,” she says. “Every article you open has real meat, as we call it.”

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But the challenge of working as a freelancer, with no major news organisation backing you, is made more difficult in Russia, which has a notoriously hostile relationship with independent journalists. When Reporters Without Borders released its world press freedom rankings last week, Russia ranked 148 out of 180 countries. 

Nemtsova is in Australia where this week she attended the Australian Press Council’s 40th anniversary conference, speaking about the challenges of working as a reporter in a region with leaders who see criticism as disloyalty. 

“Protect your reporters. Even if they dig out information that discredits you,” she told her international colleagues.

She said President Vladimir Putin’s press conferences were reserved for reporters approved by the Kremlin. They can run for hours. 

Nemtsova said the political leaders she wrote about — even more progressive ones — were “easily offended” by criticism, which they viewed as “personal betrayal”. 

“Authorities often see reporters as an information soldier in an information war,” she said. “Either defending the motherland or attacking it.”

Despite independent online newspapers cropping up across the country, Nemtsova says 80 per cent of Russians still get their news from state-run television networks.

“They’re poor people. They don’t have computers or smartphones. They have television,” she told The Citizen

During her address, Nemtsova choked up several times when naming colleagues who were killed doing their work. Russian journalist Anna Politskovkaya, for example, was murdered in an elevator in 2006.

But Nemtsova brushed off a question about whether she had sought trauma counselling. 

“There’s no time to think about that. Maybe I should,” she said. “The beast is always hungry.”  

► Anna Nemtsova is speaking at the Melbourne Press Club on Monday, May 9.

About The Citizen

THE CITIZEN is a publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism. It has several aims. Foremost, it is a teaching tool that showcases the work of the students in the University of Melbourne’s Master of Journalism and Master of International Journalism programs, giving them real-world experience in working for publication and to deadline. Find out more →

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