Moscow, 19 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The latest episode in the ongoing tragi-comic saga of the Russian media's relations with the Government attracted --to put it very mildly-- considerable attention the other night. Understandably so, because it purported to show the highly compromising sexual antics of a senior Russian official, Prosecutor General Yuri Skuratov.
On Wednesday (March 17) evening, the entirely state-controlled RTR television channel aired what it described as excerpts from a secretly recorded videotape. The excerpts showed a man bearing a strong resemblance to Skuratov having sexual contact with two women identified by the station as prostitutes. Before the broadcast, an RTR announcer said a television channel in Georgia had already aired the tape.
The broadcast, clearly aimed at discrediting Skuratov, came at the end of a day that marked the beginning of a new and serious showdown between President Boris Yeltsin and opposition politicians, who feel the ailing Yeltsin is rapidly loosing his grip on power.
The until-now Yeltsin-loyal upper house of Parliament, the Federation Council, has also openly challenged the President's power in recent days. On Wednesday, the Council voted overwhelmingly to keep Skuratov in his job. The official had earlier told members that last month he had offered his resignation under pressure from various sources, including former and present government officials, as well as from Russia's so-called economic oligarchs.
For the past several weeks, there have been rumors in Moscow about the existence of the controversial tape. Skuratov even made a reference to it when he told the State Duma recently that someone had gathered information about his private life in what he called "a criminal manner," adding that he had done "nothing against the law."
At a meeting of leading TV and other media executives on Tuesday, the existence of the tape was reportedly discussed. All the executives present were believed to have obtained a copy of it. Some Moscow media said the tape had also been given to members of the Federation Council before the upper house's vote. But that strategy clearly backfired, triggering instead additional support for Skuratov in the Council.
According to Moscow journalists, the tape was recorded last year in the apartment of an employee of the Prosecutor's office, a man with links to leading Russian businessmen.
Hours after Wednesday's Council vote, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Yakushkin indicated that Yeltsin would fight the decision and would re-submit Skuratov's resignation to the upper house. But then the tape was aired by RTR, although no other Russian TV channel chose to broadcast it later. Some analysts in Moscow say the episode demonstrates both the Russian political leadership's inability to concentrate on the country's huge political and economic problems as well as its abuse of the media.
Pavel Voshchanov, a journalist and former press secretary to Yeltsin, told the New York Times that there are two conclusions one can draw from the story. He said that "the first is that there are no politics in Russia, only political intrigues. And the second is that everyone has compromising material on everyone else, and usually, it is true."
Russia's Human Rights commissioner Oleg Mironov said RTR will have to take full responsibility for airing the tape. He added that the channel's leadership exceeded its authority by doing so. Mikhail Shvydkoi, chairman of the VGTRK holding company that controls RTR, told journalists that he had "experienced some internal discomfort" with the airing. But he also said that he made the decision to air the tape on his own, without pressure from either the Kremlin or other government officials. Yet media analysts in Moscow say it is most unlikely that the tape could have been aired without Kremlin approval --or even its explicit request.
Murky Russian media standards appeared even more striking after the Kremlin announced that Yeltsin will veto another controversial decision approved by the Federation Council on Wednesday. The upper house has approved a bill "on the creation of a high council for the protection of morality in broadcasting," previously passed by the Duma. The council would be composed of 12 presidential, parliamentary and government appointees, and would be empowered to take what the bill called "appropriate measures" against any TV or radio station airing programs that the body judged as containing immoral content.
This bill was sponsored by the communist head of the Duma's culture committee and is seen by many Russian journalists as a step back towards Soviet-style censorship. Considering the communist party's Soviet-times record of ruthless control over media and information, these concerns are certainly justified. But the Kremlin's statement that the bill is an attempt by the communist-dominated Duma to manipulate broadcast media appears less than defensible, coming as it did after the airing of the alleged Skuratov tape on the only fully state-owned Russian TV channel.
According to a 1998 report of the U.S. private human-rights organization Freedom House, Russia's media can be called only "partially free." Now, one year after the publication of the report, the situation of Russia's media seems to be worsening rapidly, reflecting the increasing disappearance of coherent Russian political and economic policies under thick layers of slung mud.
Two years ago, President Yeltsin called a meeting of Russia's then leading businessmen. At the time, they were fighting each other over the privatization of stakes in the country's leading companies, ruthlessly using the media assets they controlled.
Yeltsin, who has repeatedly pledged to be the guarantor of press freedom in Russia, told them to "stop throwing mud at each other through the media." But his admonition did not produce any positive result. In fact, Russia's media wars have intensified since then. And by now, Kremlin and other government officials have probably forgotten the critical words uttered by Yeltsin at his meeting with the oligarchs.