A controversial offer by Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky to give journalists partial control over a television station is forcing the media to ask a difficult question: Does working with a man better known for manipulating the media than supporting it automatically mean a journalist is compromising his integrity?
Moscow, 12 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- When Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky offered last week to give control of his 49 percent stake in ORT television to a trusteeship of around 20 people, mainly journalists, the plan was dismissed by many as a public relations stunt.
After all, Berezovsky -- one of the country's wealthiest businessmen and a player of behind-the-scenes Kremlin politics -- is often considered more a manipulator of the press than a defender of it.
But when popular and controversial ORT commentator Sergei Dorenko was taken off the air last Saturday after criticizing the Kremlin over its handling of the Kursk submarine disaster, the offer took an a more urgent aspect. ORT is 51-percent owned by the state and Dorenko's dismissal was widely seen as backed by the Kremlin.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty media analyst Anna Kachkayeva is one of 14 people who have accepted the offer to become trustees. Although Kachkayeva does not work for Berezovsky, more than half of those who have accepted are already working for Berezovsky-controlled media.
Kachkayeva justifies her decision by saying that any intimidation of the media by the state should be fought -- even if the victim is Berezovsky. She also says censorship in any form, including silencing the controversial Dorenko, is unacceptable.
NTV anchor and Director Yevgeny Kisilyov agrees, although he has rejected the offer of a place on the ORT board since he works for competing Media-MOST. He says calls to protect the press should not be ignored simply because they come from a controversial figure like Berezovsky. Speaking yesterday on his weekly analytical program "Itogi," Kisilyov asked: "Should we stop washing our hands just because Berezovsky makes the soap?"
Kisilyov said that although Berezovsky is an unlikely defender of a free press, the tycoon is right when he speaks about a growing threat to media freedom. Therefore, argues Kisilyov, if Berezovsky's offer can have a positive effect, it should not be rejected.
Kachkayeva says the journalists sitting on ORT's board could act as watchdogs, bringing greater transparency to the station. She points out that because ORT would remain majority state-owned, the Russian taxpayer has a right to that sort of information. She adds that joining the trust does not compromise her, because she receives no remuneration and can resign at any time she chooses.
But while Kachkayeva and others regard the trust as a chance to inform the public on the workings of the media, other journalists say they see working for wealthy oligarchs only as the "lesser of two evils." They say that in Russia today the only alternative to oligarch-controlled media is state-controlled media -- and therefore they prefer the oligarchs.
Otto Latsis, who has agreed to be an ORT trustee, is a commentator for Novye Ivestia, a newspaper controlled by Berezovsky. He says that total journalistic independence in Russia is impossible because "a newspaper or a television channel cannot finance itself." He says therefore that defending a Berezovsky-controlled media outlet against the state is the lesser evil.
Sociologist Boris Kagarlitsky tells RFE/RL that Latsis's "lesser-evil" logic is typical of Russian journalists who have lived through the transition from Soviet censorship to the present. He says many of these journalists believe that if the oligarchs lose their influence, that will serve to tighten the screws on press freedom.
Kagarlitsky says that he can understand this "lesser-evil" logic, but he believes compromising with the oligarchs is counter-productive because he says the tycoons endorse the prevailing system instead of fighting it.
"It's not only about compromise, it's also about giving up some of your moral principles. [By accepting the lesser evil] you lower your moral expectations. The bigger evil is more obvious, [but] it will provoke an opposition that could destroy it, while [compromising] with the lesser evil will let our ordeal last forever."
In earlier debates on the role of journalists in Russia's press wars, journalists themselves have acknowledged the fact that they have not always been very principled.
When Media-MOST oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky was arrested in June, the company's NTV television station admitted that it had compromised its independence during the 1996 presidential elections. NTV, like most other newspapers and TV stations at the time, had heeded the Kremlin's advice to give biased coverage to Boris Yeltsin as the "lesser evil" of allowing the Communists to win.