A recent signal of increasing Kremlin interference with Russia's media is an apparent attempt to provide some of them with secret funds -- in effect, concealing which media outlets are being financed by the government. RFE/RL correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports.
Moscow, 5 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Boris Berezovsky, the Russian oligarch who allegedly master-minded President Vladimir Putin's rise to power, this week (Monday) accused the Kremlin of trying to blackmail him into giving up his influential ORT television channel because of its critical coverage of the mishandling of the Kursk submarine disaster.
Berezovsky may hardly seem convincing in the role of champion of transparency. But when he warned Russia might soon become a nation of entirely state-controlled media, his words carried a ring of truth -- especially in light of an apparent new attempt by the authorities to keep their media financial transactions secret.
Putin expressed great irritation with independent media two weeks ago, when he spoke to families of the dead Kursk submariners. He implied that those who controlled private television were trying to put pressure on the government by "influencing a mass audience." He said that the government needed to "make its own information policy."
Some media analysts say that a series of state efforts to gain influence over television broadcasting during the past several months adds up to a major change in policy. One such effort was made before the presidential election in March, when the entirely state-controlled RTR channel revamped its news department to attract top journalists from commercial television, including NTV's former Director Oleg Dobrodeyev. Others involve Chechnya, especially the setting up of the Rosinform center, now the exclusive source of information on -- and accreditation for covering -- the war in the breakaway republic. Officials' lies about the Kursk fiasco last month was, the analysts argue, only the last example of attempts to control the media. Another way of achieving control is to increase state funding of media outlets that are considered uncritical of the government. And, according to the draft 2001 budget sent to the State Duma last month, the government is now trying to cover up its financial backing of media by labeling it officially as "top secret."
Deputy Vladimir Golovlyov, who is a member of the Duma's budget committee, told RFE/RL that the draft budget chapter that should list all state-funded media and the sums they receive is now included in an appendix labeled top secret -- a designation usually applied only to parts of the defense budget. Golovlyov says that the change reflects the authorities' growing concern about what he calls "limiting transparency." In the past, he says, this part of the budget was always public.
"Every deputy was aware of the sum involved and didn't vote blindly. But now it's a different matter. If this chapter stays secret when the law is published, then it will never be known to which media outlets the money goes, how much, and why."
Golovlyov says he can only guess why the government decided on such a measure. "Maybe," he says, "it's secret because the authorities don't want the population to know who is writing under their orders."
Oleg Panfilov, who directs a non-governmental journalists' defense fund (called in Russian the Center for Extreme Journalism), agrees that the government does not want society to know the "size and worth how of [what it considers] the information weapon." Glasnost defense fund lawyer Dmitry Shishkin told RFE/RL that he was concerned to see that "the trend of state control was gaining momentum and now has reached the federal law-making level." Shishkin said he hopes that a public outcry against the state's attempt to gain control over information will push the Duma to react.
In Shishkin's view, "making media financing secret is illegal," and the Duma can easily find a way of lifting the secrecy. But Golovlyov says that deputies in principle can have access to the budget's "secret" contents only by forcing the government to disclose its secrets. He warns that the parliamentary procedure for doing so would be "long and complicated."