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Vladimir Pozner
a fertile mind

by Jean-François Berger

Prominent Russian journalist Vladimir Pozner is the presenter of one of his country's most popular television shows, the current affairs programme Vremena ("The Times"). He is also a man for whom humanitarian issues are of deep concern. Recently, he joined the exclusive circle of international advisors to the ICRC. Red Cross, Red Crescent interviewed him in Moscow.

You are a journalist who has pursued a career under two very different systems. What has that been like?
I am not a journalist by training. I studied biology for five years at Moscow University. But I didn't really have a head for science. One day in 1961, a friend called me to say that a news agency, Novosti, had just been created and they were looking for people who spoke English and French. I was hired, on a good salary, after a half-hour interview. I worked with the Novosti agency until 1970, when I moved to radio, the Voice of Moscow, which was directed at the United States, where I lived until 1986. I must confess it was not journalism but propaganda. In the Soviet Union, a journalist was an "ideological soldier", ready to defend communist ideas. Now, the mission of a true journalist is to find out what lies behind the power wielded by the political authorities.

Things changed, didn't they, in the 1980s?
Definitely. Little by little I realized that the Soviet way was terrifying and had no bearing on those lofty ideals of equality and justice for all. Basically, when Gorbachev came to power in 1985, I began presenting a "television bridge". It was a satellite link between Leningrad and Seattle, where a well-known US journalist, Phil Donahue, hosted a talk show. The programme enabled 200 Americans to speak to their Russian counterparts face to face - for the first time - on huge screens. We talked about things that were never mentioned on Soviet television: anti-Semitism, travel restrictions, the one-party system. It was an instant success and suddenly I was a celebrity.

Have you left the Communist Party?
I left it in 1989. That same year, Phil Donahue asked me to work with him. I accepted and for six years I worked in television with Donahue in New York, before returning to Moscow in 1997.

You are currently presenting a current affairs and interview programme on ORT, a leading Russian semi-private television station, in which the state has a majority holding. Do you ever have to deal with particularly sensitive topics?
In any country, there are some subjects that are considered more sensitive than others. On state television, the touchy issues are immediately obvious - anything to do with the government or head of state. If it's a private channel, there are also sensitivities to take into account, such as those that might affect advertising revenue.

What are some of the most recent topics you have dealt with?
The sinking of the Koursk, HIV/AIDS, drug abuse and the reform of the judicial system.

You have long explained the Soviet Union, and now Russia, to those who live outside. Is there still a "Soviet" culture in Russia?
I think so. The main characteristic of this Soviet culture is the widespread belief that the state is responsible for the individual. Or, if you prefer, many believe the state is more responsible for the individual than the individual himself. This belief is at the root of many of today's problems and is manifested by a lack of initiative.

How do you feel about the social inequalities in Russia?
It's huge, it's tragic and it's unacceptable. Today, at least one-third of the population lives in poverty. Another third lives on the borderline. These
people have to face questions such as: What will we have to eat tomorrow? What will I do if my child falls sick? How will I pay the rent? They are so bogged down by problems that they are not receptive to anything else. That is why civil society is so weak.

In 1999 in Geneva you, along with other personalities, launched a solemn appeal to mark the 50th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions. Your message centred on the promotion of a "culture of peace" necessary "to bury the culture of war". Did this public appeal have any impact?
I am convinced that you have to try, or nothing happens, except the worst. Violence is ever present. We are not killing any less, we are not stealing any less, we are not raping any less than before. So, if I say that I am in favour of a culture of peace and that I would like to be there the day we can bury the treaties we have signed on how to conduct war, I do so because I believe it is important for this point of view to become an integral part of human ethics. Can it really happen? I don't know. But we have to try. And as I said earlier, I have produced propaganda for many years, I have served a certain government and a party, and having lost my illusions, I told myself that never again would I do that. As a journalist and human being, I want
to do anything I can to be useful to people.

Such as become an international advisor to the ICRC?
When I was asked to work with the ICRC, I was surprised by the invitation. Usually, former prime ministers and generals are invited, and I am a journalist. I wasn't expecting it. But I was delighted because it gives me the chance to do everything I can for people to live more humanely. And to do that even for just one person is already not bad!

As an international advisor, on what specific issues would you like to focus?
Each time we meet - twice a year - we receive a list of issues drawn up by the ICRC on which we are consulted. The subjects are fascinating, but I can't reveal what they are, as those are the rules of the game. And as a journalist I respect that! I also have the feeling of doing something important as a group, which gives me energy.

The Red Cross has many activities in the region, especially in the northern Caucasus. What do you think of the work being done? For example, ICRC visits to prisoners in Chechnya?
First, you have to have a lot of courage to do that sort of work. It is very dangerous. Then, you really have to love people: it is cold, it stinks. Something has to be there in the heart to do that. And when I see the people who do this work - without boasting about it - I am inspired. Truly. Because there are so many awful things happening everywhere and the only thing that seems to matter is money. Yet, the work of the Red Cross tells us that that isn't true; humanity exists, in Chechnya and elsewhere.

 

 

Among the Fundamental Principles of our Movement, are there any that are more significant to you than others?
For me, the most important is impartiality. It is the key which opens the door for the Red Cross to assist people in
circumstances in which no other organization can act. Of course, as a journalist, that puts me in a difficult position. Either you help a person who has been tortured because you are there, or you speak out publicly to the world and that person will probably be killed. It is an obvious dilemma!

The media have enormous power. They can alert the international community and by doing so, prompt so-called humanitarian interventions. What are your views on this?
The big problem is that the media - at least most of them - are above all a business. A journalist must therefore be sensationalist in order to grab attention. And sometimes, it's tempting to make things up or embellish a fact. It's extremely dangerous, for the media are beginning to believe what they say. When a humanitarian action is built on such a basis, it is no longer humanitarian; it is political and no longer has anything to do with the Red Cross.

Jean-François Berger

 



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