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Tags: Press | Freedom | Russia | Vanishing

Press Freedom in Russia Vanishing

Monday, 23 April 2001 12:00 AM

And keeping a tight rein on the media isn't a routine practiced solely by Putin and his coterie of ex-KGB agents and military brass hats. Out in the sticks local officials can be – and most are – just as intolerant of press freedom.

All across the vast Eurasian expanse that encompasses the Russian Federation, journalists recognize that whatever freedom they enjoy is entirely dependent upon the whims and caprices of government, both national and local.

"There are 89 different political regimes in Russia," says Igor Yakovenko, secretary of the Russian Union of Journalists. "Some of them are harsh dictatorships that crush press freedom, others have leaders that let some pluralism exist. But the signal coming out of Moscow today is telling regional authorities they can deal with the media as they like."

Newsweek's Christian Caryl notes: "What's happening in Russia today resembles … the old Soviet Union. A little over a year after Putin's election Russia is undergoing an extraordinary revival of Soviet-era habits, reflexes and rhetoric.

"What's being selectively salvaged from Soviet days is the idea of an authoritarian state with leaders who decide what's "best" for the people – a state whose interests seem to take precedence over pluralism and press freedom."

Incredibly, all this sits well with the majority of the Russian people. A recent poll revealed that 57 percent said they approved of restoring censorship.

Approval of the government keeping the media in line goes deep into the nation's past, according to Denis Popov, a reporter with Volskaya Zarya. "People think democracy means the majority is right, and holding other viewpoints is therefore wrong," he says.

As a consequence of this public attitude, Putin and the local satraps are free to hobble the media without fear of a hostile public reaction.

Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of the liberal Yabloko Party, told Newsweek, "Putin is creating a bureaucratic police state." If so, Newsweek notes, "he's doing it with public consent: His popularity ratings still hover at around 70 percent, higher than George W. Bush's."

In Moscow most of the foreign media's attention recently has been focused on the sudden takeover of NTV, the nation's only independent TV operation. Earlier this month Gazprom-Media, a branch of Russia's state-dominated gas giant Gazprom (GAZP.MO)(GAZPq.L), seized the flagship station of Vladimir Gusinsky's Media-Most empire in a boardroom coup, claiming he owed it up to $300 million.

The move drew a strong reaction from officials at the U.S. State Department.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told Reuters news agency that Sevodnya daily newspaper and the weekly Itogi magazine – two other Media-Most outlets – had also lost their independent voices since then and noted that the government had filed tax evasion charges against the chief accountant of another channel, TNT.

In a statement, Boucher said that the events were the latest in a series over the past year showing that Media-Most outlets were "clear targets of a series of extraordinary pressures from law enforcement and other elements of the Russian government.

"These actions lead reasonable observers in Russia and elsewhere to the conclusion that the campaign against Media-Most is politically motivated, given the media company's often outspoken criticism of Russian government policies."

"What we're seeing is the establishment of absolute control over the country's media and political life. It's not the beginning of totalitarianism, but the creation of a highly centralized authoritarian system," Igor Malashenko, a Media-Most director and close associate of Gusinsky's, told the Wall Street Journal.

According to Malashenko, the recent assaults on Gusinsky's empire were partly the results of an internal report by Russia's domestic intelligence service warning that Putin's popularity rating, hovering around 70 percent, will plunge as the current rapid economic growth slows. This, says Malashenko, is why "Putin wants to establish full control ... as soon as possible."

"The only real taboo at [Russia's main state-owned TV network] is that we don't say bad things about the president" as NTV sometimes did, RTR host Aleksandr Gurnov told Newsweek. "A journalist may think he's bad, but you're not allowed to say that."

With NTV now under the Kremlin's wing, Russia's state-controlled TV reminds viewers of the old Soviet days, except for the commercials. "Watching TV in Russia is becoming a Soviet experience again," Aleksei Venediktov told Newsweek.

Others are less pessimistic. Ten years of democracy can't be expected to overcome 70 years of Bolshevism and centuries of czarist autocracy before that, said Yuli Rybakov, a liberal deputy in the Parliament. "The totalitarian mind-set is still an organic part of public consciousness," he observed.

On the other hand, he told Newsweek, his recent visit to Cuba also gave him perspective. "It gave me the shivers. It made me realize what foreigners must have felt in the old days when they came to the USSR. Despite everything, we still live in a free country compared to Cuba … for the time being, at least."

Most Russians don't think their country is headed back to the bad old days of Soviet totalitarianism. As Newsweek writes: " No one talks seriously about bringing back Marxist ideology, central planning or the all-encompassing welfare state."

But then again, few would argue that under Vladimir Putin Russia is not headed for an authoritarian regime with all power concentrated in the Kremlin and exercised by Putin's KGB cronies – none of whom look kindly on media criticism, and all of whom are only too happy to come down hard on dissident journalists whenever the opportunity presents itself.

Russia may not be headed back to the Soviet Union, but it is surely headed back to the kind of totalitarian government that existed during the iron rule of the USSR. And media freedom is the first casualty of this trend.

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And keeping a tight rein on the media isn't a routine practiced solely by Putin and his coterie of ex-KGB agents and military brass hats. Out in the sticks local officials can be - and most are - just as intolerant of press freedom. All across the vast Eurasian expanse...
Monday, 23 April 2001 12:00 AM
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