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Media Matters: March 12, 2004

12 March 2004, Volume 4, Number 5
By Robert Coalson

On 10 March, Central Election Commission (TsIK) Chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov criticized an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) election-monitoring report released earlier that week that found, among other things, that the Russian media has been overwhelmingly biased toward President Vladimir Putin in its coverage of the presidential-election campaign. "The presidential campaign has been covered in the mass media more correctly and in a more civilized manner than has been the case in the past," Veshnyakov said, according to RIA-Novosti. By comparing the current campaign to ones in the past -- especially the notorious 1996 race -- Veshnyakov is setting the bar pretty low, of course, but his comment really simply reflects the highly controlled, even stage-managed air of the campaign.

The president's domination of virtually all actors in the political process -- the Duma, the TsIK, the media, local administrations, etc. -- has produced a race that can be charitably described as "civilized," although opposition politicians would no doubt use another term.

The OSCE report found baldly that state-controlled national television -- overwhelmingly the public's main source of national news -- devoted far more airtime to Putin than to any other candidate. "On the state-funded TV channels [Putin] has received coverage far beyond that which was reasonably proportionate to his role as head of state," the OSCE wrote. According to the organization's monitoring, for instance, ORT gave Putin two hours and 38 minutes of "overwhelmingly positive" coverage during the first two weeks of the official campaign period. "All other candidates combined received a total of only 22 minutes," the report stated. "The other two state-funded TV channels adopted a similar approach."

The report noted in passing that, as in past election campaigns, the under-funded and vulnerable regional media "have given very little news coverage to the candidates' campaign activities." One bright exception to this general observation emerged on 9 March, when reported that the independent Afontovo television channel in Krasnoyarsk -- long one of the best regional media companies in Russia -- had broadcast footage of local administration officials arranging for local teachers to vote early in the presidential election. Although it is unlikely this scandal will amount to anything, it was a strikingly bold piece of reporting. During the 1996 and 2000 presidential races, media observers noted that most regional media outlets, out of fear of reprisals, published their reports of campaign violations only after the voting if at all.

Control of the media has greatly facilitated Putin's main campaign tactics, such as refusing to campaign or to participate in televised campaign debates. "The deficit in the campaign environment created by the other candidates' lack of opportunity to address questions and comments to the incumbent president on his performance in office is compounded by the general absence of a critical mass media posing such questions in its reporting," the OSCE wrote.

State media control also assisted Putin when he decided on 24 February to dismiss the government of former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov. For the two weeks leading up to the 14 March ballot, much media attention was diverted from the campaign. Moreover, the Kremlin's grip on the media and the Duma ensured that the government shake-up was portrayed as calm, reasoned leadership rather than as a crisis, as the frequent cabinet dismissals of former President Boris Yeltsin were routinely depicted.

Media control has also allowed the Kremlin to block out any news that would reflect badly on Putin. In a 25 February story headlined "Chechnya Wound Kept Under Wraps For Putin's Big Day," dpa reported that government control of foreign and domestic correspondents working in the conflict zone has been stepped up. Those accredited to work there "are shepherded on tours that are supposed to show deep stabilization in the region." They are told to focus on "Chechnya's social and economic rejuvenation under Moscow's supervision."

Another monitoring report was issued by the Russian Union of Journalists on 2 March and largely confirmed the OSCE findings. The union found that media outlets -- both print and broadcast -- devoted from 57 percent to 100 percent of their campaign coverage to Putin. Moreover, it did not find any substantial difference between state-controlled and private media. Overall, the union's study -- which was funded by the European Commission -- found that national television devoted 63 percent of its coverage in the first week of the campaign to Putin, with the remaining 37 percent split fairly evenly among the other candidates, except for former State Duma Speaker Ivan Rybkin. According to this report, Rybkin received no coverage at all prior to his strange misadventure in Kyiv.

In national newspapers, the Union of Journalists reported, Putin got 70 percent of the coverage. The daily "Trud," which was purchased by Promsvyazbank in August, devoted 95 percent of its coverage to Putin. When the bank, which also owns a controlling interest in "Argumenty i fakty," bought the paper, analysts predicted that its longstanding leftist orientation would shift toward the Kremlin, and, indeed, "Trud" has ironically devoted only 1 percent of its election coverage to Communist Party candidate Nikolai Kharitonov. The popular tabloid-like daily "Komsomolskaya pravda," which is owned by oligarch Vladimir Potanin's Interros group, gave Putin 67 percent of its attention, putting it on a par with the government mouthpiece "Rossiiskaya gazeta."

State-controlled regional media such as "Nizhegorodskaya pravda" devoted 100 percent of their coverage to Putin. It is probably not coincidental that candidates Irina Khakamada and Sergei Glazev both reported that their efforts to campaign in Nizhnii Novgorod met open resistance from local authorities.

During the week before the vote, Glazev laid out his positions in a half-hour, one-on-one interview with the BBC's "HARDtalk" program. None of the presidential candidates had a similar opportunity to address voters on any of the Russian television channels.

Clearly, the path to Putin's seemingly inevitable re-election has been greased by a controlled and subservient media. The only question remaining on the eve of the ballot is whether the media did the Kremlin's bidding too well. If too many voters are convinced that the election is decided, turnout could be too low to give Putin the resounding mandate that he is so clearly seeking.

Robert Coalson is the editor of "RFE/RL Media Matters."

By Robert Coalson

The first few days following the appointment of Moscow State Conservatory Rector Aleksandr Sokolov as culture and mass communications minister have done little to provide a solid indication of his views or his plans for Russia's mass media. When the appointment was announced on 9 March, Sokolov was at a musical competition in Japan, and he did not attend the first session of the new government on 11 March. Journalists had a hard time reaching him for comment, except for a few remarks he made at a press conference on 10 March.

Media watchers were heartened to hear Sokolov state that censorship is unacceptable and to admit that all is far from well with the state of Russian journalism. However, Sokolov's initial comments mentioned only the lack of professionalism of journalists as the root of the problem. He ignored entirely other issues, including state domination of the sector and largely successful efforts by business and political interests to manipulate the media, which is unprotected by the state or public opinion.

As an example, Sokolov noted that renowned conductor and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich has largely refused to perform in Russia for several years because of what he considers ignorant and unprofessional articles about him in the press. Russia has been "deprived of Rostropovich" because of poor journalistic professionalism. Sokolov did not comment on the irony of Rostropovich's attitude, given that Rostropovich was undoubtedly one of the heroes of the effort to usher in democracy and democratic freedoms in 1991.

Taken as a whole, Sokolov's immediate post-appointment comments were strikingly conservative and did little to inspire confidence that his tenure overseeing the media would be significantly different from that of his predecessor, Media Minister Mikhail Lesin. Sokolov was careful to note that President Vladimir Putin sets the direction for government policy. That policy was set out in the Information Security Doctrine that Putin approved in September 2000, which says, "State media organs must be strengthened and given broader powers with regard to the timely transmission of reliable information."

"Moskovskii komsomolets," one of the few important media outlets that has remained beyond the Kremlin's control, on 12 March noted with alarm Sokolov's statement about the need "to remove the distorting mirrors from the mass media" and his remark that state television and serious newspapers "must undertake commensurate work in selecting personnel." After noting Sokolov's long work as head of the Soviet Communist Party committee at the conservatory in the 1980s, the paper editorialized glumly, "We believe that the minister's struggle with crooked mirrors and bad personnel will be a success."

By nature, Sokolov seems to be a conservative person. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 13 March argued that "there seems little reason to speak of any radical shifts." The newspaper recalled that when Sokolov replaced Mikhail Ovchinnikov as head of the conservatory in 1991, he was quoted as saying: "I, like St. Petersburg Conservatory Rector Sergei Roldugin, do not take on functions for which I am not trained. I am a musicologist, so naturally I will check three times before I introduce any serious innovations at the conservatory." Citing anonymous sources close to former Culture Minister Mikhail Shvydkoi, the same "Nezavisimaya gazeta" article reported that Roldugin was asked to head the new Culture and Mass Communications Ministry but declined and suggested fellow St. Petersburg native Sokolov instead.

During his 10 March press conference, Sokolov noted that his expertise in the media sphere is limited. "If in the sphere of musical culture the situation is completely clear to me, in the area of information and the press there are many arguments that I still must study," Sokolov told journalists. "These questions directly affect policy and the most important functions of the government." He emphasized again that in determining his attitude toward these questions, he will be guided foremost by the direction of Vladimir Putin.

By Victor Yasmann

One of the biggest surprises to emerge from President Vladimir Putin's 9 March cabinet restructuring was the appointment of Moscow State Conservatory Rector Aleksandr Sokolov to the newly created post of culture and mass communications minister.

The new ministry will take over and combine the responsibilities of the old Culture Ministry -- which was headed by Mikhail Shvydkoi in the previous government and which oversees cultural matters including the arts, cinema, and show business -- and the old Media Ministry, which was headed by Mikhail Lesin and which manages the mass media, publishing, and audio/video production.

Sokolov has spent his entire life working in the field of music education, spending most of his career in management posts. He was born in Leningrad on 8 August 1949 and is the grandson of the 19th-century nature writer Ivan Sokolov-Mikitov. He graduated from Moscow's Gnesin Music Academy in 1967 specializing in the violin and, in 1973, from the music history and theory department of the Moscow State Conservatory. He has been associated with the conservatory ever since, getting his master's degree there in 1981 and his doctorate in 1992. reported on 9 March that during the Soviet period Sokolov was the secretary of the Communist Party committee at the conservatory. Usually, such work is a full-time job, meaning that Sokolov probably dealt more with ideological and organizational work than with music theory. This experience might have been part of what Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov had in mind when he presented Sokolov at a government meeting on 9 March and described him as "a good manager."

In 1992, Sokolov was named vice rector of the conservatory, overseeing research and academics. In 2001, former conservatory Rector Mikhail Ovchinnikov was removed from his post for his alleged involvement in a financial scandal, and Sokolov took over the post. Since then, he has run the Moscow State Conservatory, which is considered one of the finest musical-education institutions in the world.

Sokolov's long tenure as vice rector for research and academics has led to speculation that he might have had some relationship with Russia's secret services, which have often used this post -- in the Soviet and the post-Soviet periods -- as a front for their representatives at institutions of higher education. Although no evidence of such a connection, the rumors are likely to be persistent given rumors of a similar connection between Fradkov and the secret services. Fradkov served for a long time in a number of foreign-trade missions, which were also widely used as cover for secret-service representatives. At the very least, such missions were under constant KGB scrutiny, so it is difficult to imagine that Fradkov did not establish such contacts during this period. In the first hours following the appointment, neither Putin nor Fradkov gave any substantial explanation for their surprising choice or their confidence in Sokolov.

Sokolov himself was unavailable for comment following the announcement, as he was in Japan representing Russia as a judge at the Tchaikovsky International Competition for Young Musicians. His colleagues from the conservatory characterized him as a man with a solid reputation and impeccable manners, although he is also reputed to be something of a womanizer, according to

It is widely expected that Sokolov will have two deputy ministers, one in charge of culture and the other overseeing the mass media. Among the candidates reportedly under consideration for the latter post, the most-often mentioned are State Duma Deputy Valerii Bogomolov and Federation Council Information Policy Committee Chairman Dmitrii Mezentsev, who represents the administration of Irkutsk Oblast in the upper chamber.

Fradkov told RTR on 10 March that Shvydkoi will be offered the position of head of the new Federal Culture and Cinematography Agency, which is an component of the new Culture and Mass Communications Ministry. He also said that he believes Sokolov will appoint Lesin as his deputy minister responsible for the mass media. Fradkov's statements seemed to call into question exactly how radical Putin's restructuring of the government will be.

Victor Yasmann is a senior analyst for RFE/RL specializing in Russian politics, security, defense, and international relations.

By Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

The old Soviet joke used to be that in the newspaper "Pravda" (Truth) there was no news, and in "Izvestiya" (News) there was no truth. On the state-owned television channel RTR's news program, "Vesti" (News) these days, there is hard news, but there is also a new kind of propaganda that is more subtle and skillful -- and all the more challenging as a result.

The professionalism of "Vesti" and the legitimate news stories that it does cover well distract attention from the stories it never covers, as well as from its unwavering and uncritical gaze on President Vladimir Putin.

Every evening at 8 p.m., the slick contemporary "Vesti" graphics tumble into place. First, the famous Kremlin clock appears and the bells chime, then horses race across the screen, culminating with a dramatic spiral down to the anchors, the boyish-looking Mikhail Antonov or the expertly coifed Mariya Sittel. Inevitably, the viewer thinks of the famous rushing Russian troika at the end of 19-century writer Nikolai Gogol's "Dead Souls": "Russia, where are you racing to?"

Gone are the Soviet-era's older men in ill-fitting suits facing the camera for hours, droning on about harvest statistics and overfulfilling the Communist Party's plan, with the shuffling of their script pages crackling into the microphone. Seamy Yeltsin-era scenes of government officials hot-tubbing with prostitutes are also missing. Now, young, savvy reporters do stand-ups for serious spot news coverage everywhere from Paris to Vladivostok, and their colleagues in the studio prepare snappy graphics to accompany the up-to-the-minute stories.

Within hours of the 6 February terrorist bombing in Moscow's subway, the well-connected "Vesti" had a police sketch of the suspect, a computer-generated animation of the train and the exploding shrapnel, an interview with the conductor of the train, and a "Vesti" camera operator who just happened to be a few cars back from the blast. The anchors and journalists refrained from excessive emotion, but let figures like Duma Deputy Dmitrii Rogozin, who immediately blamed Chechens, tell the story.

"Vesti" has worked out a formula that loyally serves the state and also makes for good mass television. When in doubt, lead with Putin and run the Russian Orthodox Church after the top story. Have the camera sweep solemnly down a columned hall with a red carpet, trailing a diminutive figure who walks modestly down the aisle of applauding admirers. It is Putin, and the words he says in a soft, slightly high-pitched voice, could be the station's motto: "We, the federal center...." From there, the president unveils new decisions with immediate impact for the entire country, or holds town meetings by satellite link with unhappy miners protesting poor wages in Kemerovo or angry victims of terrorism in Yessentuki. He reassures them that the federal center cares and is doing everything it can but, as anyone can see, it's a big country.

Even viewers hardened to Soviet-style propaganda techniques come away scratching their heads and thinking: "It is a big country, and a big job, and somebody has to do it. Putin is at least trying." All the questions that post-glasnost Russian television used to ask the government have been effectively stifled, not by crude censorship or shrill invective, but by expert camera work and reporters who manage to look crisp even in a hail storm.

When not at his clean desk, Putin is often on trips to the far reaches of the Russian Federation -- dressed in a sailor's uniform aboard a nuclear submarine in the Barents Sea, wearing a fur hat with flaps in a frigid northern town, bowing before an icon in a monastery, or drinking tea with a proud new apartment owner in a regional city. The impression is that Putin is in 10 places at once, galloping across Russia's reaches instilling coherence and a sense of purpose. "There is something that unites us all," he says to an ecumenical council in Chuvash Republic. Although he subtly implied he was referring to Russian Orthodoxy, one couldn't help but suspect he was really talking about himself.

After Putin and the patriarch, it's "find a flood, any flood," or ice storm or avalanche that shows how unfriendly Mother Nature is and how brave the workers of the Emergency Situations Ministry are. Next, expose a misdeed or a scandal in the provinces, where heads absolutely must roll because the guilty have been already identified. Such stories include the recent sacking of top military officials over mistreatment of conscripts being transported to Magadan, one of whom froze to death. Then, back again to Moscow and Putin, sitting in his elegantly appointed office with malachite desk accessories and sharpened pencils at the ready. The camera follows him in profile, as he receives a deferential minister who is there to give him a glowing report -- of "proficits" rather than deficits, of many happy new families getting apartments through a new government loan program. "When people get a new home, it helps to increase the, er..." an official stammers, blushing, and Putin gracefully and quietly fills in the phrase for him: "birthrate."

Continuing with the standard formula, after stories about recalcitrant provincial officials shying from the wrath of the powerful federal center come features of "some old thing" -- an unearthed ancient manuscript, a mammoth bone, a writer's 90th birthday -- anything to illustrate the glorious past. Occasionally, previously taboo topics from the Soviet era are featured -- such as a recent feature about the unveiling of a plaque for writer Sergei Dovlatov that neglected to mention that he spent years in exile in New York, publishing a newspaper featuring banned Soviet writers. Famed conductor and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich returns for a master class in Vladimir at an academy bearing his name, but his years of exile in the West are never discussed. After "some old thing" comes "some new thing" -- a cute baby panda, or a 5-kilogram baby Yakut boy. Although "Vesti" rarely descends to the level of tabloid television, on some evenings the show rounds up with the news of a seven-eared cat or "Magnet Boy," a child able to make spoons stick to his body.

Foreign news inevitably emphasizes the Russian angle, announcing triumphantly that Russian has been recognized as a language at meetings at the Council of Europe, with a Russian diplomat commenting smugly that those who might want to get rid of Russian at home -- i.e. Estonians and Ukrainians -- will now be forced to hear it in Strasbourg. Israeli doctors are praised for successfully freezing embryos and producing healthy babies eight years later. But an old Soviet-era scientist is wheeled out to announce that the Soviets long ago perfected the technique, "but we didn't experiment on people, just on animals" -- the kind of dig for which "Vesti" is noted.

The Soviet predilection for heavy machinery dies hard. Most weeks, "Vesti" covers impressive new oil-drilling equipment, optical inventions, and military aircraft. The show was even able to get five minutes of prime-time television out of the development of a new kind of asphalt destined to end Moscow's chronic pothole problem. "Vesti" remained cool and calm while reporting about the recent missile-launch failures during a military exercise, spinning the story of the duds without even mentioning them by drumming up a quotation from a general, who said the military was "satisfied" and stressing that Putin had personally praised new missile technology. "A nuclear power must flex its muscles from time to time," said a military spokesman on cue -- which was the point of the exercise.

In this week's story about the freezing of Swiss bank accounts of Yukos executives, some of whom -- like former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovskii -- have been arrested or indicted, "Vesti" fell back on the tried-and-true staple of a dour spokeswoman from the prosecutor's office, reading the charges with mounting distaste -- "...and, I'm not afraid to use the term, the primitive theft of state funds." Not to be undercut by Western sources on the other side of the story, "Vesti" got the money quote from Leonid Nevzlin, a Yukos shareholder who is living in Israel and is under an international arrest warrant from the Russian police: "The cash is in a safe place. It's not our last $5 billion. Let them freeze it."

"Vesti" has mastered the art of the sound bite, the stand-up at a breaking news event, and even person-in-the-street interviews and investigative reporting. A hidden camera crew in Nizhnii Novgorod purportedly caught campaign workers for presidential candidate and State Duma Deputy Sergei Glazev paying money for signatures to get him on the ballot. "Vesti" journalists approached the campaigners and got them on the record admitting they were paying cash. When the roof caved in recently at Moscow's Aquapark, journalists quizzed squirming architects and engineers about whether illegal corner-cutting had been involved.

Putin did not campaign for re-election or face his rivals in public debates. He did not have to because he already dominates the airwaves in the state-sponsored news. To be sure, Putin's rivals are given some news coverage during prime time. Yet the framing of these figures leaves nothing to the imagination. Communist Party candidate Nikolai Kharitonov is shown as a kindly but bumbling figure, explaining his utopian campaign in 15 minutes, promising tax relief for farmers for three years, and telling people their living expenses will be no more than 10 percent of their income. Everything will be nationalized, except garden plots and backyards. The viewer is left with the impression that Kharitonov is supposed to help a public resigned to voting for Putin let off steam about certain policies, such as the much-loathed introduction of car insurance. The camera pans over row upon row of elderly and poorly dressed Russian citizens in provincial towns like Tula or Orekhovo-Zuyev, with Kharitonov blinking with a nervous tic and promising the moon. Just in case he still looks attractive, the voice-over explains with a little bit of exasperation that Kharitonov "wants to do everything the Communist way, and oppose the existing order." Fellow candidate Irina Khakamada is also featured, but inevitably she and her supporters are made to look like freaks, with strange hairdos and glasses. She is shown earnestly taking phone calls from troubled citizens on a hotline, as if to say this is a woman's proper place -- in the complaints bureau. The camera lingers on a sign on the wall next to her banks of phones instructing office workers that "the name Khakamada does not [grammatically] decline!" to accentuate her foreign heritage. Meanwhile, in the Glazev camp, everything is in disarray, as the candidate is removed as Motherland Duma faction head by his former supporters, and the camera follows Duma workers confronting his bodyguards as they try to remove the name plaque from his office door.

By contrast, a great deal of attention is paid to skinheads and fascistic youth in St. Petersburg and other cities, who are said to be responsible for crimes ranging from desecration of Jewish cemeteries and painting swastikas to the murder of foreigners. When a 9-year-old Tajik girl was killed recently in St. Petersburg, "Vesti" had a camera crew in the family's courtyard the same day, with interviews of the victim's visibly distraught mother and her 7-year-old cousin, who was injured in the attack, as well as with neighbors and the chief of police.

Precisely because "Vesti" has the look and feel of a Western-style and modern news program, any bias it reflects or omissions it makes are harder to detect.

Nowhere is the difference between the old Yeltsin-era NTV and the new Putin television felt than in the coverage -- or noncoverage -- of Chechnya. Hardly a night goes by without a dead Chechen announced at the top of the hour and a story about the successful capture or killing of a Chechen fighter featured in the bottom half, sometimes with lingering, panoramic views of a dead body in the morgue, such as with the recently killed field commander Ruslan Gelaev. Often, the anchor will tersely announce that "armed bandits have been destroyed" in the mountains, emphasizing dehumanizing words like "destroy" or "annihilate." Usually, a special operations officer is on hand to explain that a particularly heinous Chechen criminal has been "liquidated" for good cause. Nothing more is explained, except to note that the "terrorist" was responsible for some or all of the attacks that have rocked Russia in the last year, killing hundreds of civilians.

As an uplifting counterpoint to the "terrorists," "Vesti" features the loving ministrations of Putin's officially sanctioned youth movement "Walking Together" and other social-welfare efforts in Chechnya. On Orthodox Christmas, a party was organized for Chechen adults and children in this Muslim republic. They are shown dancing around a Christmas tree in the costumes of Father Frost and the Snow Maiden, their indigenous culture showing through in their triumphant waving of arms and snapping of fingers in the air. A new youth center was opened with great pomp and circumstance in devastated Grozny. A mother praises the center for at last finding something constructive for her teenage boy to do -- he is learning wrestling and keeping off the streets. A young boy of about 12 sits at a computer, saying he is writing to his grandfather in Moscow. Nothing is said about his father. In broken Russian, he gives a toothless grin and says he is learning English -- and thus, like other subjects of a sometimes unwitting "Vesti," he has had the last word.

Catherine A. Fitzpatrick is a freelance writer living in New York City specializing in the former Soviet Union. She is the editor of "RFE/RL (Un)Civil Societies."