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Russia: Yet Again, Media Freedom Appears Under Threat

  • Jeremy Bransten

Russia's Media Ministry has shut down the country's last remaining independent national television channel while legislators have approved a bill that would let the authorities temporarily close news organizations found to be "biased" in their coverage of electoral campaigns. Is press freedom under threat once again in Russia?

Prague, 25 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Last weekend, viewers of Russia's independent TVS channel got an unwelcome late-night surprise.

Citing ongoing financial and management problems, the Media Ministry shut the network down. Almost seamlessly, a 24-hour sports channel took up the frequency.

With the push of a button, TVS's political-satire shows poking fun at government policies, its investigations into official corruption, its commentaries by leading television journalist Yevgenii Kiselev all became history. In their place was a soccer match.

Although few deny that TVS faced genuine financial problems, many journalists are expressing alarm at the manner in which the shutdown was conducted and even greater concern at the fact that with TVS's demise, Russia has lost its last national, independent television news broadcaster.

"Personally, I was very alarmed and very depressed by the manner in which the television network was closed," said Olga Karabanova, director of the Moscow-based Press Development Institute. "Those of us in the business knew about TVS's financial, organizational, and structural difficulties for a long time. But to see a station once again shut down at night, in this way, with the frequency transferred to a new sports network, without any legal due process, that is really upsetting."

One of the reasons for Karabanova's alarm is that TVS's closure followed an all-too-familiar pattern. Most of the editorial team at TVS -- led by Kiselev -- originally broadcast on Russia's NTV television. They left the station when the state-controlled Gazprom concern seized the private network in a hostile takeover in 2001.

Kiselev's team then found a home at Moscow's TV-6 station, until that was shut down in January 2002. And that is when TVS offered them jobs, which they had until the latest weekend shutdown.

Ostensibly, all three takeovers and closures were over business disagreements. But many commentators note that in all three cases, the independent broadcasters in question were known for their hard-hitting investigations and satirical programs that caused the Kremlin more than a few headaches.

With legislative elections due at the end of this year and presidential polls in March of 2004, many in Russia say the closure of TVS comes at a convenient time for the government.

With this in mind, they point to the State Duma's approval last week of a series of amendments to the country's media law, which would give the authorities the right to shut down any media outlet found to be covering election campaigns in a biased manner, for the duration of the campaign.

Proponents of the amendments -- which must still be signed by President Vladimir Putin before becoming law -- say the provisions are needed to put an end to the blatant yellow-journalism publications that crop up during election campaigns in Russia. Rival candidates use such publications, or sometimes directly bribe reporters at reputable newspapers, to smear their opponents or present false information -- all under the guise of independent journalism.

Aleksei Pankin, editor in chief of "Sreda," a magazine for Russian media professionals, shares this view. "Elections here are a feeding trough that allow people to make money in the basest way possible. So, people who genuinely make their money from the free market, who service the consumer market, are happy [about this law] because they believe some sources of dishonest financing will be blocked. Their market position, by contrast, will be strengthened. I think the bill is not strong enough. I personally would ban election coverage for half a year because, I repeat, the way most of the Russian press covers elections is a desecration of the democratic process," he said.

But Karabanova, at the Press Development Institute, said the Duma bill is yet more evidence of the authorities' attempt to muzzle the media ahead of elections. She noted that the bill's vague language, which would leave it up to electoral commissions to decide whether a newspaper has violated ethical standards in reporting, will facilitate the closure of newspapers whose coverage is deemed unfavorable by the government.

For most newspapers, she added, a forced shutdown for a period of several weeks spells certain bankruptcy. "We know very well that newspapers don't solely depend, 100 percent, on electoral campaigns for their coverage," Karabanova said. "And the absence of a paper for a week or two or three -- or, in the case of repeat elections, it could be two to three months -- an absence for such a period will lead to bankruptcy."

Pankin acknowledges the potential for abuse, but ultimately, he said, Russia's media have only themselves to blame. "There is of course a risk, naturally. But again, it is the media's own fault because they have put themselves in a position where they are treated like prostitutes that can be bought and treated in any manner. So, of course, there is always a risk and there is a risk that this law will hurt some worthy media. But this is the almost inescapable result of what the Russian media has become as a whole, or in its majority," he said.

If you are going to hold the media to higher standards, Karabanova asked, what about the candidates and those behind them that start the whole cycle of payment-for-articles?

"It is a fact that electoral campaigns in Russia aren't always the most transparent, let's say. The media wait for this period as a time to make a lot of money; money that won't be taxed, that will be hidden. But, unfortunately, the whole electoral process in Russia lacks transparency and you cannot say that the financing of all candidates or parties is always transparent. So, yes, money gets exchanged under the table. But we are only fighting one participant in this process," Karabanova said.

Ultimately, Karabanova takes some consolation from the fact that many of TVS's talented reporters will likely find their way to other stations, perhaps doing their part to raise the general level of television journalism in Russia. But the disappearance of the last national network not controlled either by the state or a state-owned company, she said -- and the lack of any outcry from the public about the Duma's attempt to control the way journalists do their jobs at election time -- send a worrying signal for the future.