Russia's Lid On the Media

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By Masha Lipman
Thursday, June 15, 2006

MOSCOW -- Earlier this month Moscow hosted a congress of the World Association of Newspapers. The organization's president, Gavin O'Reilly, deplored the Russian government's encroachments on media freedom. Then President Vladimir Putin took the podium to respond. The media's situation has grown better, not worse, he said: "From year to year increasingly favorable conditions are emerging in Russia for media development . . . Mr. O'Reilly spoke about the increasing state presence in the media. I have different information on this point."

In its hypocrisy, its utter lack of credibility, Putin's statement was reminiscent of the most blatant Soviet propaganda. In fact, it's not just foreign observers but also Russian media professionals who are deeply concerned about state control of the media. In the autumn of 2004 a number of members of the Russian Television Academy signed a letter that stated that "Russian television today is not free." They said they were being forced to broadcast official reports "instead of objective information. Propaganda instead of free discussions. Censorship has been basically established on television." And other restrictions, the letter emphasized, had led to self-censorship.

Putin sees it differently: "Our country continues to value talent, honesty and courage on the part of journalists," he declared at the newspaper association's congress.

Speaking of talent: Russia's best television anchor, Leonid Parfyonov; its best daily newspaper editor, Raf Shakirov; and its best newsmagazine editor, Sergei Parkhomenko (he and I founded and edited a newsweekly that was taken over by the state-controlled gas monopoly Gazprom in 2001), have been forced out of their jobs, as have about a dozen other prominent media professionals. One of the latest to go was Olga Romanova, a fiery and incisive political anchor, forced out of her position on a minor TV channel after a change of ownership orchestrated by the Kremlin. Some of the banished have quit journalism altogether. Others have gone to work for outlets with much smaller audiences.

Another way to view infringement on the media under Putin is to track changes in coverage of the news in recent years. Of the many tragedies that have befallen the Russian people during Putin's presidency, the worst were the sinking of the submarine Kursk in 2000, the Moscow theater siege in 2002 and the terrorist seizure of the school in Beslan in 2004. Back in 2000 coverage of the Kursk catastrophe was a professional and cohesive effort. Both television and print journalists worked hard to provide honest and thorough coverage, bringing to light things that the government tried to hide. Officials -- civilian and military -- were forced to appear on the air to give comments "live." As they sought to avoid responsibility, their lies, cover-ups and conflicting reports were fully exposed to an angry nation.

Putin did not restrain himself in expressing his anger at the coverage. He publicly blamed media tycoons for the destruction of the army and the navy. But at that time, there was little he could do about it: The media, in the wake of Boris Yeltsin's presidency, were still largely unrestrained.

But by the time terrorists seized a Moscow theater and took some 900 hostages, the state had gone a long way toward regaining control of television. At least one channel, NTV, still had its professional standards and drive, though. It set about investigating the botched rescue operation, which caused the deaths of 129 people in the middle of Moscow. NTV couldn't do much, but at least people in Russia could see that the government wasn't letting the journalists do their jobs. Putin's response? He accused reporters of having base motives. They were mere publicity-seekers, he said, capitalizing on human blood. A few months later the manager of NTV was forced to resign.

State control was fully in place by 2004. The television coverage of Beslan stopped after the operation ended on day three of the monstrous terrorist attack, which left 331 people dead, more than half of them children. No high-ranking official -- security, law enforcement or otherwise -- has appeared on the air to account for what happened. To this day it has not been disclosed who was in charge of the operation. A Duma investigative commission has simply ignored much of the bloodcurdling testimony of witnesses, including that which surfaced during the trial of the only surviving terrorist. The trial itself was barely covered.

Four years into Putin's presidency, television has been tamed and taken securely under government control. Nothing is left to chance: Even seemingly live political talk shows get some editing so that nothing unexpected or unwelcome will appear on the screen. Whatever high-level criticism of Russia might be voiced at the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg next month, Russia's mass TV audience is unlikely to learn about it.

Since the Beslan tragedy, the Kremlin has moved to expand control over minor media, such as small-audience television outlets and, increasingly, print media. The once-respected daily Izvestia was acquired by Gazprom.

Lately there are persistent rumors that the next target may be the publishing house Kommersant and its crown jewel, the newspaper of the same name. This is Russia's most professional and high-quality mainstream daily. If the rumors are true, Kommersant will likely be handled as other media have been: The state will "appoint" a loyal buyer whose editorial line will no longer be a source of concern to the Kremlin.

There are still other, smaller outlets besides Kommersant that have preserved independent editorial stances. But these can barely break the basic media monopoly of Putin's Kremlin. The state television news channels reach 100 percent of the Russian audience, while alternative sources of information have limited circulation. Moreover, the Kremlin has ensured that national television is separated from independent-minded media: Television does not pick up their stories or invite their reporters to appear on the air.

Today's Kremlin is wholly unconstrained. There is nothing, inside or outside the country, to stop Putin and his regime from doing anything they wish on the domestic scene -- political, media or otherwise.

Masha Lipman, editor of the Carnegie Moscow Center's Pro et Contra journal, writes a monthly column for The Post.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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