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Russia: Putin Presidency At Two-Year Mark -- No Favors For Free Press (Part 2)

  • Francesca Mereu

Two years after Vladimir Putin was elected president of Russia, press-freedom advocates are concerned about the future of the country's independent media. In this second of a two-part series on the Putin presidency, RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Francesca Mereu speaks with Russian and Western analysts about how the Russian media situation has changed over the past few years.

Moscow, 19 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Since taking office two years ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin has come under increasing pressure for his attitude regarding the press. Both Russian and Western analysts say media conditions have worsened during the Putin presidency. In May 2001, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) included Putin on a list of the top 10 "enemies" of the free press -- a list that included Colombia's Carlos Castano, Iran's Ayatollah Khamenei, and Ukraine's Leonid Kuchma.

The CPJ's Europe program coordinator Alex Lupis said the committee decided to add Putin to the list after the state-controlled Gazprom monopoly took over the private NTV television station last April and reshuffled the editorial board of the "Itogi" news weekly. Both NTV and "Itogi" were owned by media mogul and oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky and were openly critical of Kremlin policy.

Lupis told RFE/RL that the situation has not changed for the better this year and that the CPJ remains very concerned about press conditions in Russia.

"We've documented a number of cases where the government basically has a very consistent policy of either passively not supporting critical independent media outlets or sometimes even taking active steps to prevent independent media outlets from conducting their work in a free and safe manner. But I think what's most disturbing is the impunity with which journalists and media outlets in Russia are attacked and sometimes even murdered. Basically, the Russian Interior Ministry very often will open a case, but it almost never solves the case," Lupis said.

Lupis said the situation creates an atmosphere of isolation on one side and impunity on the other, as journalists know they are vulnerable to attack and their assailants know they are not likely to be held accountable.

Ruslan Gorevoi of the Glasnost Defense Foundation said that attacks on journalists are a relatively new trend in Russia -- one that intensified two years ago when Putin came to power. Before, Gorevoi said, journalists died primarily because their work assignments took them to dangerous places, like Chechnya. But it was rare that a reporter would, in his words, "leave his house and never come back."

Now, especially in Russia's regions, journalists are coming under threat for covering stories on state corruption and organized crime. As Gorevoi put it: "Murder is now used as an extreme form of censorship to silence disturbing voices."

Even more worrying, he added, is that state security forces seem uninterested in pursuing criminal cases involving attacks on journalists, even when they involve murder.

"In two years' time, according to our statistics, 37 journalists have died because of their work. But the thing is, so far only three cases have been solved and only one person was convicted -- the criminals in the other two cases have not yet [been convicted]," Gorevoi said.

Early this year, Boris Berezovsky's private TV-6 broadcasting station was closed after a Moscow arbitration court ordered its liquidation. Troubles for the station began when a minority shareholder -- oil giant LUKoil -- filed a suit against the station, citing poor financial performance. At the time, many observers said the struggle over TV-6 -- which had absorbed a number of NTV journalists after last year's Gazprom takeover -- was just another step by authorities to quell any remaining opposition in the media.

The CPJ's Lupis said the situation surrounding NTV and TV-6 shows that the government is more than willing to use its power to muzzle the independent media. "The government very often steps in to back loyal media outlets, to support loyal businesses in taking over independent media outlets that are critical of the government. There are also numerous criminal libel cases which are drawn against independent journalists, which stifles criticism of political authorities [and] stifles credible investigations of corruption in the government and organized crime."

Andrei Raskin is a journalism professor at Moscow State University and a specialist in Russian television broadcasting. He said that as a result of looming government repression, the Soviet-era habit of self-censorship has re-entered the fore. Raskin said many journalists and editors now think twice about issuing a story that might disturb the Kremlin.

"Today, very often, journalists, as they write their stories, are worried about what the Kremlin may think about it: if the story may affect their career in the media or if they are going to lose their job. And in Russia, that is very easy -- it is always possible to find a number of reasons to fire someone," Raskin said.

Raskin said journalists are, in fact, trying to please not one master, but two: government authorities, as well as their owners. The result, he said, can be seen in the dwindling quality of television and print news coverage.

Moreover, he added, Russian broadcasters have lost the freedom to examine society, government, politics, and business issues. "When you watch television news," he said, "it's impossible to understand what's really going on in this country." Topics like the war in Chechnya and corruption no longer make the nightly news, he said, adding that journalists now prefer to report only the "official" side of breaking news events in order to avoid trouble.

Broadcasters have also backed away from regional coverage, leaving news that is Moscow-centric and often irrelevant to the rest of the country. For example, Raskin said, recent news coverage has been dominated by the changing fortunes of the Communist Party, which has been stripped of the vast majority of its leadership roles in the State Duma, or lower house of parliament. But a massive popular demonstration against government utility hikes in the city of Voronezh south of Moscow, meanwhile, was completely ignored.

The CPJ's Lupis said NTV -- once considered the standard-bearer for professional journalism in Russia -- has now changed its critical stance to become, in his words, a "loyal opposition," allowing the appearance of variety in the media while actually delivering state-friendly fare.

Raskin of Moscow State University said it is now almost impossible to play a true opposition role in Russia, since authorities now look at media groups as businesses for whom profitability should be a primary concern. "Independent media -- I mean those media whose owner has an independent stance -- are having a tough time, particularly those that don't have a steady financial situation. During [former President Boris] Yeltsin's rule, authorities used to turn a blind eye to many problems [the independent media could cause]. For example, if the media had debts or some unresolved problems with partners, the government would help them. But with Putin, authorities treat the media the same way they treat other business sectors. And this is unfair, because the role media play in society is different [from the role played by other businesses]."

Lupis said the takeover of NTV and the liquidation of TV-6 marked the debut of what he called "more-refined techniques of political action disguised as capitalism."

Another measure adopted by authorities to eliminate a number of opposition newspapers, according to Gorevoi of the Glasnost Defense Foundation, is a stiffer tax regime. Gorevoi said some 50 small-circulation regional papers have been forced to shut down this year as a result of higher taxes.

Raskin said Russian journalism enjoyed a brief era of relative freedom in the early 1990s, in the wake of Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika reforms. But the early enthusiasm ended in 1992, when journalists were forced to face the reality of working for new owners, often powerful businessmen with a vested interest in seeing the news reported in a way that favored their positions.

Raskin spoke wistfully of the perestroika era, a time when he said the media were free to discuss problems openly and played a key role in promoting new principles of democracy. But Raskin said that under Putin, the Russian media will return not to the period of perestroika, but to the Leonid Brezhnev era. "We are going back to the beginning of the 1980s, when we went through the so-called stagnation period," Raskin said. "And this, in my opinion, is one of the most negative trends that we have [in Russia]."

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