Prague, 16 June 2005 (RFE/RL) -- It's not often in Russia that representatives of groups like the unregistered National Bolshevik Party (NBP), whose symbol is a hammer-and-sickle variation of the Nazi swastika, share a platform with leaders of the pro-Western liberal intelligentsia like Grigorii Yavlinskii or Irina Khakamada.
But that is just what happened on 16 June in Moscow, when the Committee on Defending Freedom of Expression convened. The committee, as Yavlinskii's press secretary Yevgeniya Dillendorf told RFE/RL, is a diverse group.
"The Communists, the Motherland party, the Party of Pensioners have joined; the Motherland party's youth wing, the [National Bolshevik] Limonovites, the Union of Rightist Forces, and Khakamada's Our Choice, in addition to a lot of human rights organizations, the Union of Journalists -- all of these groups have joined," Dillendorf said.
They are united by one idea, perhaps best expressed by the 18th-century French writer and philosopher Voltaire, who famously said: "I disagree with what you have to say, but will fight to the death to protect your right to say it."
Russia's opposition parties and civic groups want an end to what they say is the government's monopoly on broadcast media. The Committee on Defending Freedom of Expression has written a letter to Putin calling for the abolition of what they term "open" and "hidden" censorship on radio and television so that they can get their views across to Russia's people. They are now working on a charter of ethics that they want media organizations to sign, to guarantee access to the media for all political groups.
"The main problem for Russia is not the fact that there is no freedom of speech for politicians, but that there is no access to honest, conscientious, objective information."
Igor Yakovenko, general secretary of Russia's Union of Journalists, recently accused the government of pursuing a policy of "nationalizing" media outlets. Independent television networks such as the former NTV have been brought back under de facto state control and as a result, says Yakovenko, substantive political discussion programs and analysis have been replaced by pro- Kremlin reporting and entertainment.
Dillendorf put it more bluntly. "There is a list of 'closed' topics and there is a list of people who are not supposed to be invited to appear in the media," he said.
Dillendorf says she has no illusions that the letter and charter the committee is producing will change things by themselves. But she hopes these actions will rouse Russian society from its apathy.
"Of course, this is a question which will not be resolved with a letter or a charter," she told RFE/RL. "It is question of public perception and public attention. So, if we unite -- and I don't mean at the organizational level, but on a fundamental level -- if this unity gives an impulse to society so that it perceives this as a real problem, not 10 people in Moscow, but hundreds of thousands throughout the country, [then it will be a success.]"
Yosif Dzhyaloshinskii, a media analyst and journalism professor at Moscow's Higher School of Economics, agrees that the media landscape in Russia -- especially television -- has become much less diverse in recent years. But he does not believe that giving politicians more television time to promote their party platforms is a solution.
"The main problem for Russia -- and I will try to phrase this succinctly -- is not the fact that there is no freedom of speech for politicians, but that there is no access to honest, conscientious, objective information," Dzhyaloshinskii said. "It is impossible to find out how much money has been spent in Chechnya; it is impossible to find out how many people have died there, on both sides; it is impossible to find out about any program being prepared by the government. In reality, fewer than 20 percent of Russia's citizens have any kind of intelligible information, not just about the workings of the federal government, but about what city hall in their own municipality is doing."
Dzhyaloshinskii says that unfortunately, it is journalists themselves who are the problem. In the waning days of the Soviet Union, journalists enjoyed tremendous prestige and they took pride in their work. That, says Dzhyaloshinskii, is because they had a mission.
"When perestroika began in 1987, 1988, 1989, journalists as a profession were the initiators and communicators of this process," he said. "In other words, it was journalists who took on the role of a then-nonexistent civil society. This gave many journalists a feeling of importance and-or responsibility. I'm also a journalist, and until 2000, I hosted an analytical program on the Mir television station. I remember this feeling that we were doing something truly useful and important."
The situation began to change during the 1990s when oligarch businessmen acquired a large slice of the media market and pressured journalists to write stories to order. The government soon got in on the act, especially during former President Boris Yeltsin's 1996 reelection campaign, when cash handouts were distributed in exchange for pro-Kremlin coverage.
Many journalists, says Dzhyaloshinskii, stopped seeing themselves as the nation's conscience and saw their skill as a commodity to be sold to the highest bidder.
Now that the Putin administration has pushed the oligarchs out of much of the media business, he adds, most journalists see their role almost as loyal state bureaucrats.
"I just returned yesterday morning from the city of Chelyabinsk, where I gave a speech to the editors of a major regional newspaper," Dzhyaloshinskii told RFE/RL. "There were about 50 people there. I told them that newspapers must be made independent and that they must learn to earn money -- but to do it honestly. I spoke for about three hours and then they cursed me for the following three hours, for having come from Moscow to fill their heads with confusion. As one editor put it: 'Our main problem is to get money from the authorities and to calmly advance their interests.' Another editor phrased it even better: 'Our role is to get money from the government to explain to the people why the government is pursuing the best policies.' This coming from a large, serious journalistic enterprise -- from editors of a major newspaper! This is the situation the Russian community of journalists finds itself in."
Until Russia's journalists -- not just media owners -- adopt an ethics charter and ask themselves why they got into the profession in the first place, Dzhyaloshinskii believes calls for the Kremlin to revoke "censorship" will have little effect.