Moscow, 27 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The International Press Institute -- a respected organization of editors, publisher, journalists and media specialists from around the world -- this week brought journalists from 93 countries to its three-day annual meeting, taking place for the first time in Moscow.
Russia' President Boris Yeltsin took the opportunity to address the opening ceremony of the conference in the Kremlin Monday, and he expressed his concern over the influence some of Russia's leading business tycoons have over media assets they control. After asserting that "media owners are sometimes the worst censors," Yeltsin, who has said in the past that he is the guarantor of a free press in Russia, added, "they are the biggest threat to Russia's press freedom."
Using tones that might have sounded alarming for many in the audience, Yeltsin complained that power-hungry media owners "openly interfere in editorial policy, deciding what should and should not be written." He added that "as a result, the people's right to objectivity and truthful information is in jeopardy."
Less than an hour after Yeltsin's powerful call in support of a free press, Kremlin spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky said Russian television coverage of the recent miners railways blockade "went beyond the limits of what is reasonable." Yasterzhembsky said Yeltsin would meet the heads of three leading national networks, including the fully private NTV, this week on Thursday (May 28) "to discuss the relationship between the media and the authorities." He said also that Yeltsin would meet Friday (May 29) with leading financial leaders, including some of the most powerful media magnates, to listen to their view of the current financial crisis.
During a meeting last September with some of the influential tycoons, Yeltsin had urged them not to use the media they controlled to "sling mud" at each other and at top government officials. However, his appeals have had no discernible affect on the tone of Russian media coverage.
Yeltsin benefited from almost unanimous support in the Russian media during his 1996 re-election campaign, when journalists helped spread his campaign message, and keep his health problems out of public view. Media tycoons, who had supported Yeltsin in his bid were rewarded with sweetheart deals. But, since last year, the government has demonstrated its determination to stop the practice, and the power-hungry tycoons, and regain influence over the media assests they control.
In interviews with RFE/RL correspondents, Muscovites of assorted background and age-groups seem to agree with Yeltsin -- but they overwhelmingly and sharply criticized Yastrzhembsky's following remarks. Most people interviewed said Russians "had the right to see all the details of fellow citizens' protests, including placards, calling for the President's and the government's dismissal."
And, Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, in an interview after his return from successful negotiations to lift the railways blockade, said he could not criticize the media coverage of the ten-day protest. Using a popular Russian saying, Nemtsov said the state "should not blame the mirror for the way it looks." However, Nemtsov agreed with most observers, who argue that with their coverage of events in Russia, television networks and the people controlling them "partly attempt to support their private and sometimes political interests."
In his speech to IPI delegates, Yeltsin said that the Russian media had made huge progress towards independence since seven decades of Communist censorship ended in 1991, and he balanced his criticism with praise for Russian journalists for their courage, bravery and defence of human rights. But, he added that "certain people in the Russian government cannot part with the illusion that journalists must serve those in power -- that the press is to be under command, and that the bold are to be punished, while the obedient are to be encouraged."
Yeltsin added his voice to those of many media experts in Russia and abroad, who, since the last presidential election in 1996, have complained that, in Russia, there is freedom of the press, but not press freedom. He said that "few publications have remained in Russia which enjoy genuine independence."
This month, Yeltsin signed a decree, instructing the new government to form, by the end of 1998, a production/technical media-holding company, including all state-owned electronic media on the basis of VGTRK, the second nationwide channel of Russian television, which also manages the channel Kultura and Radio Russia. With this decision, the fully state-owned VGTRK - commonly known outside Russia as RTR -- replaces ORT as the main channel of Russia's television.
Changes at the Federal Broadcasting Commission also have observers saying the creation of a media-holding is aimed at allowing the government to re-establish control over the media assets in which it maintains formal control as majority shareholder -- but, where money and managers are controlled by influential businessmen.
Yeltsin's comments this week were clearly aimed at the business tycoons, who, since the 1996 presidential election, have increased their influence over most of Russia's major electronic and print media. They include Most-Group's Vladimir Gusinsky, who controls NTV; as well as business and financial leaders such as Menatep-Rosprom group's Mikhail Khodarkovsky, Oneximbank-Interros group's Vladimir Potanin and other influential magnates with whom Yeltsin will meet this week. However, the President's words seemed to be addressed, in particular, to businessman turned politician, Boris Berezovsky. Until the March government reshuffle, a powerful Kremlin insider, Berezovsky boasted of influential ties to some Kremlin officials, including Yeltsin's daughter and image adviser, Tatyana Dyachenko.
Yeltsin's decree concerning the creation of a state media-holding appears to damage, in particular, the interests of Berezovsky, who was recently appointed Executive Secretary of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Despite being formally state owned, Russia's most popular television network, ORT, is effectively controlled by Berezovsky. He owns only a minor stake in ORT, but maintains control over some top ORT managers and over the network's cash flow.
In April, ORT consistently gave favorable coverage to retired General Aleksandr Lebed, during Lebed's successful gubernatorial campaign in Krasnoyarsk. Addressing a panel of the of participants in the International Press Institute's conference Monday, Berezovsky responded to Yeltsin, saying the government has developed an "allergy" to business interests, that had no voice in the Soviet era, but, now "reflect the interests of the nation." According to Berezovsky, "this is why big business must be heard." However, Berezovsky conceded that, while he "supported Lebed in the Krasnoyarsk election", he (Berezovsky) "considers Lebed exceptionally dangerous as a possible president of Russia."