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Analysis: Press And Power In Bryansk Oblast

Journalists in Bryansk Oblast in recent weeks have raised the charge that the oblast administration is conducting a "purge" of newspaper editors whose political views conflict with those of Governor Nikolai Denin.

Denin, a member of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party, was elected in December after a local court disqualified popular Communist incumbent Yurii Lodkin. According to the Bryansk news agency Gorod-24 on 16 February, the editors of all the oblast's state-supported raion-level newspapers were ordered to appear before the administration's Press Committee on 15-17 February for an evaluation because of "the switch to new working conditions."

Gorod-24, however, reported that the crisis began last month when the editors of six of the papers were summarily asked to submit their resignations, which they refused to do. Instead, they turned to the oblast legislature, President Vladimir Putin, and Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Alvaro Gil-Robles for support.

Although the journalists assert that the purported purge is being conducted for political reasons, oblast officials counter that they are merely trying to clean up the region's budget and to bring local legislation into conformity with federal law. They argue that the recently adopted law converting most in-kind benefits to cash payments bars local governments from providing direct financial aid to newspapers and printing houses, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 16 February. However, Bryansk Oblast so far appears to be the only region in Russia that has interpreted the law in this way.

Seasoned Media Player

The situation in Bryansk, however, is complicated and demonstrates the noxious effects of state subsidies to the media, as well as of the unhealthy intersection of journalism and power that is typical of provincial Russia. Former Governor Lodkin was a journalist himself in the Soviet era and he understood the usefulness of maintaining close control over the local media. During his two terms in office, Lodkin placed trusted people in charge of all the raionki, as the raion-level newspapers are called, Gorod-24 reported. Many of them were, and are, members of the Communist Party.

The journalists who are now threatened by the new administration seem genuinely surprised that they have not been able to find a way to get along with Denin. "Just recently, the Bryansk Oblast governor [Lodkin] personally awarded me a certificate of honor for professionalism," "Mayak" Editor in Chief Nikolai Pozhalenkov told REN-TV on 16 February. "Also, I have a letter of thanks from the Russian president. I and [two other editors] acted as the president's proxies in Chechnya. And, all of a sudden, the situation has taken a turn like this. I don't understand."
Former Governor Lodkin was a journalist himself in the Soviet era and he understood the usefulness of maintaining close control over the local media.

"Kommersant-Daily" reported that the oblast provided 23 million rubles ($767,000) in subsidies to the papers in 2004 alone. "Under Lodkin, each editor had a personal Volga [automobile] and their pay was on the level of a deputy head of a raion," an unidentified source within the Denin administration told the daily. According to "Kommersant-Daily," all of the raion newspapers "wrote extremely negatively" about Denin during the 2003 State Duma elections and during the 2004 gubernatorial campaign and they all "actively supported" Lodkin.

This was not enough, however, to prevent a local court from striking Lodkin from the ballot in November 2004 in response to allegations from People's Party candidate Aleksandr Zhdanov that Lodkin violated electioneering laws. Lodkin's supporters charged at the time that the courts were being manipulated to pave the way for Denin.

Now Denin has named Anatolii Terebunov as acting deputy governor responsible for media and raion affairs. Terebunov was previously the editor of the opposition paper "Bryanskii perekrestok," which supported Denin during the election. In November 2002, a Unified Russia press release proudly listed Terebunov as one of the Bryansk journalists invited to participate in the party's national conference of regional media and to attend "celebrations" in Moscow in honor of the anniversary of the founding of Unified Russia, Regnum reported on 29 November 2002. Gorod-24 reported on 16 February that prior to his stint at "Bryanskii perekrestok," Terebunov was editor of the raion newspaper "Mglinskie vesti."

Political Motives

Terebunov and Denin have not bothered to hide the political motives behind their pressure on the raionki. Denin called the papers "liars" at a 21 January press conference, Gorod-24 reported, while Terebunov told "Kommersant-Daily" that, "in December of last year the opinion foisted by the press diverged from the choice of the people. He added that now the administration intends "to cauterize them, no matter how much they moan."

"Kommersant-Daily" reported that none of the six editors who have been asked to resign appeared before the Press Committee on 15 February, all of them claiming to be ill. Moreover, they have announced that they will launch a hunger strike if the administration continues its efforts to remove them, maintaining that they were all confirmed to new five-year appointments last year by Lodkin's administration.