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Russia: Media Manipulation Influences Duma Campaign

  • Sophie Lambroschini

With the campaign underway in earnest for seats in the next Russian Duma, numerous critics of the country's media argue that it is demonstrating extreme bias in coverage. In fact, many argue that the current campaign marks a new low, with both the government and the so-called oligarchs crudely manipulating coverage.

Moscow, 29 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The parliamentary elections scheduled for next month (December 19) are seen as a first test of popularity for candidates in next year's presidential race. President Boris Yeltsin has chosen Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as his successor, but other candidates, too, are vying for influence -- notably Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov.

Like all election campaigns, the battle is being waged on the media front. But critics argue that the extreme bias of Russian media and their obvious manipulation by their owners has generated a media war in which the primary weapon is rumor, not journalism.

Vladimir Ivanidze is an investigative journalist with the business newspaper "Vedomosti." In his view, the most worrisome factor is the media's growing disregard for reporting facts. Ivanidze says that even when the facts of a candidate's activities or finances would prove damaging, many pundits prefer to report -- or invent -- slanderous rumors.

"The main aim is to make negative reports about a person or a group of people sound completely normal. But the main [means of accomplishing this] is [to put] trash in people's heads, to empty as many slop-pails as possible. It's not even important that certain facts would actually be more compromising, more convincing, more lethal than the rubbish that comes [on the air].

A Sunday-night program on the television channel ORT is one of the most virulent of all the weekly programs, and one of the most valuable in the pre-electoral propaganda war. Its host, pundit Vladimir Dorenko, with his deep, gravelly voice and intense gaze into the camera, has become a nationwide star in the media war. ORT broadcasts to almost all of Russia, as well as much of the former Soviet Union and is more than half state-owned. The major private shareholder of the channel, Kremlin insider Boris Berezovsky, is widely believed to heavily influence the content of ORT broadcasts.

In keeping with the station's pro-Kremlin slant, Dorenko has been slamming potential rivals to Putin, the Kremlin's presidential pick. Week after week, he delivers alleged "scoops" on Luzhkov, Primakov, or whatever else has caught his eye.

Dorenko says he is an analyst, not a journalist, and therefore has a right to be subjective. Wild speculation, served up with an ironic, joking demeanor, is his specialty. For example, after members of the Union of Journalists condemned Dorenko's program for violating journalistic ethics, Dorenko theorized that his critics were involved with prostitutes and backed by the mayor of Moscow.

In recent programs, Dorenko has even accused Luzhkov of being behind the contract killing of American businessman Paul Tatum. Tatum was battling the Moscow administration over ownership of a prestigious hotel when he was murdered in 1997. At the time, the media alleged that a businessman close to Luzhkov was behind the killing, but no police investigation was made public. Dorenko's coverage has spurred only a lackluster debate on slander and the limits of free speech.

Speaking in front of the Duma, Prime Minister Putin played down the significance of the media war.

"The kind of programs you're speaking about is just a continuation of what we've been seeing these past years. This is just the way the fight between different media clans is overflowing during the pre-electoral period."

Yet the head of the Central Electoral Commission, Aleksandr Veshnyakov, has said he wants to end the worst political excesses in the ongoing media war. He has pledged to interpret very strictly the new election laws that deal with media coverage of the campaign. But the CEC head has not said what or whom, specifically, he would crack down on.