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Russia: Putin's Views On Press Freedom Draw Criticism

In his first "state of the nation" speech on Saturday, Russian President Vladimir Putin focused on a strong state and market-economy principles, but he also devoted several minutes to freedom of the press. Commentators note that the president's declaration that "Russia will not survive without a free media" was at odds with his statement that criticism in the press is "anti-state." RFE/RL's Sophie Lambroschini reports.

Moscow, 10 July 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Vladimir Putin's conception of press freedom in Russia, as he told the parliament on Saturday, boils down to this: A genuine free press doesn't exist in Russia. In Putin's view, the actions the authorities have been taking against journalists and editors are actually aimed at "anti-state" conspirators -- the propagators of a phony free press. "Unfortunately, so far we haven't succeeded in working out clear, democratic rules guaranteeing a genuine freedom of the press. I want to stress the word 'genuine.' Journalistic freedom has become a juicy morsel for politicians and the biggest financial groups. It has become a convenient instrument for battles between clans," Putin says.

But far from reassuring Russia's pro-democracy circles, Putin's state of the nation speech only spurred new doubts about the Russian president's conception of freedom of the media.

Over the past weeks, reformist politicians and journalists in Russia, as well as some members of the international community have expressed concern about several Kremlin offensives against journalists and media groups that have been critical of Kremlin policy. Newspapers and television stations that are critical of the war in Chechnya have been particularly targeted.

The tax authorities' raid on the Media-MOST group and the charging of its owner -- Vladimir Gusinsky -- with embezzlement was one of the most dramatic examples. Media-MOST runs the independent NTV television station, which has shown in graphic detail the horrors of the Chechen war. But Putin maintains that the state's actions against Gusinsky were brought on by the company's financial improprieties. He says the case has nothing to do with press freedom.

Putin's argument that press freedom does not exist because media outlets are under the control of industrial groups headed by influential businessmen harks back to the Soviet Communist Party's attacks against what it called the Western, bourgeois press.

Russian Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov has attempted to justify former Soviet censorship by saying that Russia's media today are only the mouthpiece and the instrument of their rich owners, known as oligarchs.

This same line of logic seems to have been adopted by the Kremlin. In his speech on Saturday, Putin rejected accusations that there is official censorship, accusing the owners of media outlets themselves of being at the root of censorship. Putin then argued that the precarious economic position of many private media outlets makes them doubly vulnerable to editorial pressure from their owners. "The economic inefficiency of a large proportion of mass media outlets makes them dependant on the commercial and political interests of the bosses and sponsors of these media outlets. It makes it possible to use the mass media for squaring accounts with competitors and, sometimes, even to turn them into mass misinformation outlets and into a means of struggle against the state," he said.

The argument that economic inefficiency is press freedom's worst enemy was recently made by Information Minister Mikhail Lesin, notably to Radio Free Europe.

Officials at NTV say the government is attempting to prove its point with the independent station, by pressuring NTV's lenders to recall their loans to the network. They say that is an effort to push NTV into bankruptcy.

While reformist politicians acknowledge that independent Russian media outlets are often far from free in their editorial policy and are sometimes misused by their owners, they argue that competition between groups does insure a plurality of views. Boris Nemtsov is deputy Duma speaker and head of the Union of Right Forces faction, the SPS. He spoke to journalists after Putin's speech and expressed concern that the authorities are planning to concentrate media outlets into the hands of exclusively pro-Kremlin owners."Concerning human rights and freedoms, frankly speaking, I didn't really understand. On the one hand, the president says that the media should be free, but on the other hand, he's angered by the fact that they belong to someone. But they are always going to belong to someone. The main thing is that they don't belong to the same person. The main thing is that there should be competition between owners. The main thing is that the state doesn't dominate on the media market," Nemtsov said.

Politician Vladimir Ryzhkov, a Duma deputy who was kicked out of the pro-Putin Unity faction for voicing dissident views, scoffed at Putin's speech. In his words: "Freedom is like sturgeon. There is no such thing as almost fresh fish."

Putin's views on media freedom also spurred reactions from Russia's prominent current affairs program anchors.

Sergei Dorenko, who hosts his own program on ORT, a television channel controlled by business tycoon Boris Berezovsky, also criticized Putin's labeling of media criticism as "anti-state." Formerly, Dorenko was one of the Kremlin's most enthusiastic supporters, but he recently began to give more critical assessments after Berezovsky fell out with the Kremlin.

NTV's star political journalist, Yevgeny Kisilyov, said Putin's comment was undoubtedly directed against his own network NTV, which has repeatedly been described by Russian pro-Kremlin commentators as "anti-state."

But Kisilyov also echoed one politician's comment that Putin's speech revealed a tendency on the part of the Russian president to identify himself too closely with the Russian state. As Kisilyov remarked: "Putin seems to be emulating the motto of France's King Louis the Fourteenth, who declared 'l'Etat, c'est moi,' -- the State is me."