Russia's President Vladimir Putin waits for the arrival of G-20 leaders at the Konstantin Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2013. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
Russia's President Vladimir Putin waits for the arrival of G-20 leaders at the Konstantin Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2013. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

When a country such as Russia hosts the annual G20 Leaders Summit, is it doing a favour to the rest of the world – or to itself, and the image of its leader? And when the leaders attend, are they playing to a global audience or a domestic one? By and large, of course, it’s all about the citizens at home; and the media might or might not play along.

Few ordinary Canadians would boast about hosting the 2010 G8 Summit in Toronto, where news images linger in public consciousness of Black Bloc rioters, blazing police cruisers, looted storefronts, and the $1-billion-plus bill to taxpayers for everything from extra security to the artificial lake in the media centre. It was hardly a publicity coup for host Prime Minister Stephen Harper – even though the leader’s intention for image-building was clearly there, including through his initiative to promote global maternal health. Media focused less on Harper’s agenda or the substantive issues facing the G20 leaders, and more on a lamentable side show of violent protest and police reaction.

Here in St. Petersburg, at the Sept. 5-6, 2013 summit, the purpose of the Russian-hosted International Media Centre is not primarily to enable journalists from around the world to transmit messages home about the substance of the leaders’ discussions. It’s to help Russian President Vladimir Putin put on a good show for Russian citizens and media; and any benefits to other global media may be a byproduct.

Images of Putin flood a 20-foot (6-1/2-metre) high screen at the front of the media pavilion – showing all the leaders in various candid still photos shot by the host photo agency, but most frequently the Russian leader, greeting his guests one by one, meeting with his guests in various splendid historic Russian settings. Even if the photo is solely of a different leader, the on-screen caption says “Vladimir Putin meets with [other leader’s name here].”

In the media briefing halls, where official speakers deliver their scripted messages to journalists, the agenda is packed on both days with Russian officials: the labour minister, the deputy finance minister, the deputy director of the Department of New Challenges and Threats (truly), and many more. A few others get their day in the briefing rooms, of course, including the national leaders of Italy and France, as they request. But mainly, it’s a steady diet of Russians speaking to Russians.

CIGI tried to book a media briefing room at the summit to hold an “Experts Panel” for the benefit of journalists, to allow our policy researchers to share views on the core issues for the G20 on economic coordination. We were able to do this easily at previous summits, including last year in Los Cabos, Mexico, and earlier in Seoul, South Korea. But in Russia, nyet. Only sanctioned national delegations could ask to stage formal briefings.

CIGI tried to display its most recent research publications – directly related to the G20 agenda – on media-centre tables, along with other material for journalists – such as the official guidebook or press releases from summit organizers. Again, we did this at previous summits. Leading up to the St. Petersburg summit, two months of requests for permission through proper channels went unanswered. At the summit, on-site requests were denied. “This is prohibited,” said a young Russian woman working at the Information kiosk, as we asked to put out a small pile of CIGI papers.

On it went. CIGI has a pop-up banner – a floor sign with our logo, that we post behind CIGI experts when they stand for interviews, or at our events and public lectures. We had this sign erected near our desks in the St. Petersburg media centre, for use as needed – just as we did at every summit we’ve attended. A 20-something summit staffer marched up, burly comrade in tow, and told us to stow it. “This is not permitted,” she said.

A colleague quipped that the facility ought to have been named the International Media Gulag. Loudspeakers regularly remind us that “food and beverages are prohibited” in the vast hall. 

Why let the media run rampant, accessing unofficial information, or the freely expressed opinions of experts here at the summit? That wouldn’t necessarily help a muscular President to portray Russia to his people as a once-more powerful nation, holding its own on the world stage of global politics, hosting the upcoming Winter Olympics, standing firm against other superpower ambitions.

To some extent, media at the St. Petersburg G20 are trapped in a bubble of spin. Of course, at all such summits, access to any of the leaders is severely restricted. Among the 1,500 reporters, broadcast technical crews and other journalistic types working elbow-to-elbow in the summit’s media centre, precious few get anywhere near the Constantine Palace a few hundred meters away where the leaders meet – so close, but so far. A few are granted “pool positions” to get brief and limited entry to the inner sanctum, but the vast majority are quarantined behind a security fence and fed their tidbits from the main show via large TV monitors.

Journalists covering summits are quite accustomed to official controls and access denials, and try to work around them, or might even stay at home (especially if their cost-conscious editors won’t spring for the airfare to a G20 summit). If they do come to St. Petersburg, they will write or speak as freely to their domestic audiences as their editors, national media laws or consciences will permit. But no credit for colouring outside the lines is due to any sort of encouragement from the summit hosts – or certainly not in Russia. 

A colleague quipped that the facility ought to have been named the International Media Gulag.
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