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Russia/Georgia: The Dilemma of Politics Blogging for Cash

Categories: Central Asia & Caucasus, Eastern & Central Europe, Georgia, Russia, Citizen Media, Freedom of Speech, Media & Journalism, Politics, RuNet Echo

Paid bloggers and the phenomenon of “shady PR” has become a reality in the Russian online sphere and even received some coverage [1] on a Russian television channel. Global Voices wrote about the issue [2] in detail a year ago – although it seems that prices have increased significantly since then; one can also read about it on other websites (for example here [3]and here [4]).

A recent discussion on the blog of Yuri Yakunin, a writer and popular political blogger in Georgia, shows how tempting accepting money for writing a blog post may be on many levels. Yakunin’s post is interesting because it digs into the ethical aspect of the issue. The discussion reveals why it may be acceptable for some people to take the payment, and it also shows why the refusal to write a paid story can be viewed as stupidity.

“Am I an idiot?”

'Money under the mouse' stock photo from sxc.hu [5]

'Money under the mouse' stock photo from sxc.hu

On October 17, 2011, Yakunin wrote [6] [ru] on his blog:

Сегодня предложили написать статью за …. 300$ : – нужна статья про вашего президента и его министров о том какие они плохие.

Today they offered me 300 US dollars to write an article – they need one about your [Georgian people's] president and his ministers and about how bad they are.

The conversation started on Skype when someone named “Sergey” introduced himself as the manger of one of Moscow public relations agencies and made the offer.

Yakunin posted a screenshot [7] [ru] of the chat to prove his words.

“What is in it for you?” Yakunin asked apparently smitten by such a generous proposal.
“I am paid for that”, Sergey explained. “And more than 300 dollars.”
“I see”, Yakuning paused.
“It is just I cannot find a blogger in Georgia”, Sergey seemed frustrated and a little surprised. “Everyone is for Saakahsvili [Georgia’s president].”
“You won’t find any. I am not Saakashvili’s supporter and I can write a lot of things but not for money”, Yakunin replied.

“Am I an idiot [for refusing the offer]?” Yakunin asked his readers. He second-guesses his decision several times in comments referring to his lack of money (he lives on a small pension) and the upcoming birthday of his son who wants a present.

“Write the article,” fellow blogger and reader temur25 replied [8] [ru].

“If you don’t write it, someone else will.” “You don’t need money?” tipo-graff asked [9] [ru].

“Write it. Everybody wins. You and the manager. And Saakashvilli, I think, will survive it,” Run-if-you-can wrote [10] [ru].

But Yakunin stood by his decision: “I would [write it]”, Yakunin replied. “But a spoon of s**t in a barrel of honey or a spoon of honey in a barrel of s**t is still s**t. I don’t want my family to smell that.”

“But would there be any lies in the article?” continued run-if-you-can. “I understand you don’t like Saakashvili and you don’t support the official party line. So, what is the problem?”

“I am not talking about lies” explained Yakunin. “One can find in the comments here more than needed for this kind of article but I won’t be writing the TRUTH for money! I would write an advertisement [for money] but not something sacred.”

Tempting reality

It should be noted that many LiveJournal users did support Yakunin in his decision. But the fact that he – one of the best known bloggers in Georgia – feels he needs to explain himself and turns to his online community for support, indicates the climate of insecurity in which many prominent political bloggers in the country live.

Popularity and influence online often leads to “interesting” offers to monetize on the hordes of followers (again, see the Global Voices article [2] mentioned above or confessions by russos here [11] [ru]). The practice amongst Russian bloggers of accusing each other of taking money in return for writing a blog post rarely surprises anyone. One can only guess how many people actually take money without saying anything, or advertising their incorruptibility. Difficult financial situations and the enormous effort needed to attract thousands of blog readers play their role.

As some of the replies to Yakunin's post show, there is an assumption that someone is always willing to take the money  (“If you don’t write it, someone else will”). Unfortunately, the mere expression of a different point of view leads to accusations of being a paid blogger. “They think if you write about someone in a way different from the others, that means you are paid [for your posts],” Yakunin wrote.

Although largely viewed as a platform for expressing opinions silenced by traditional media, the Internet can easily become a tool for setting political agendas. But paying bloggers for promoting certain political messages is a slap in the face of freedom of expression. It is also a dangerous tendency that may well discredit the very principle of the marketplace of ideas, which in Russia and former Soviet Republic countries is still struggling with the legacy of repressive regimes.