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Western Press Review: Russia's Free Press At Stake

Prague, 18 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Much of the commentary in today's Western press focuses on the continued controversy over Russia's NTV network, which has heated up in the wake of crackdowns on its fellow Media-MOST publications, the daily "Segodnya" and the "Itogi" weekly. Boris Jordan -- the American businessman who is now the disputed head of NTV -- offers his perspective on the controversy, saying business, not free speech, is the issue. But other comments say the crackdown heralds a return to Soviet-style suppression, and that it is time for the West to step in.


Boris Jordan, the U.S.-born financier appointed by Gazprom to run NTV, writes in today's "Wall Street Journal Europe" that NTV is a business problem, not a matter of free speech. Jordan says: "The television channel is on a fast and sure road to bankruptcy. [NTV] stands no chance of surviving as an independent editorial voice unless a viable business model is put in place." He continues: "Some of those most vocally opposing us are the very same people whose mismanagement dragged NTV into a financial crisis. Could their hostility be motivated by a desire to cover up and perpetuate this waste of shareholder assets? Is the real issue not freedom of speech but freedom from accountability?"

He adds: "Listening to the media outcry, one would think that NTV's founder, Vladimir Gusinsky, and his hand-picked senior executives are paragons of free media. But the opposite is true. The fact is that Mr. Gusinsky dominated NTV's news content just as he did its operations. His chief editor Yevgeny Kiselyov has admitted to allowing NTV to serve Mr. Gusinsky's political agenda -- campaigning for former President Boris Yeltsin's re-election. [Now], by going to another television outlet (TV-6), Mr. Kiselyov has jumped into the embrace of yet another oligarch, the one most adept, by his own admission, at mixing business, politics and the media -- Boris Berezovsky."

Jordan concludes: "When I was offered my position, I told all shareholders, including the Russian gas giant Gazprom, that I would accept no attempt to influence NTV's editorial independence or journalistic freedom. If there is any such attempt I shall immediately step down."


An editorial in the "New York Times," commenting on the closure of Moscow's "Segodnya" daily newspaper and staff dismissals at the "Itogi" political weekly, says: "If this trend is not quickly reversed, President Vladimir Putin could regain some of the power his Soviet-era predecessors had to suppress or manipulate unfavorable news."

The paper adds: "NTV, "Segodnya," and "Itogi" were all part of the media empire built by Vladimir Gusinsky, a flamboyant entrepreneur. Although Mr. Gusinsky was himself an opportunist, all three of his enterprises were known for high standards of journalistic professionalism and for their willingness to challenge the Putin government." Russian President Vladimir Putin, it says, has "disingenuously tried to portray the takeover as a mere business dispute." But, it adds: "Mr. Putin's commitment to democratic freedoms appears a lot less firm than that of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. As Mr. Putin steadily tightens his grip on power, it is important that Russia's citizens be able to hold him accountable through unfiltered sources of information."


An editorial in the "Washington Post" (The Washington Post Co. owns "Newsweek," a partner in the "Itogi" weekly) says the West cannot sit back while Russia's free press is attacked. The paper says: "The Bush administration and the governments of the European Union, Canada, and Japan now face an important challenge: to ensure that Mr. Putin suffers some consequence from his grossly anti-democratic behavior. [The] sanction must be suited to the offense: [Mr.] Putin's autocratic behavior can best be countered by increasing, not curtailing, U.S. aid to human rights groups, small independent newspapers, and other organizations struggling to keep an independent civil society alive."

It continues: "Putin imagines leading Russia back into a position of world influence, and revels in his membership in the G-7 group of industrialized nations and the Council of Europe. [The] United States supported Russia's addition to the club of seven rich democracies even though it was neither rich nor fully democratic. [There] should be no place at a summit of Western democracies, or any European political council, for a government that has suppressed freedom of speech, built up a secret police apparatus, and waged a brutal campaign of repression like that in Chechnya." It concludes: "Mr. Putin has been unwilling to take the West seriously when it has raised these issues; if he is disinvited from the next G-7 summit meeting, he just might."


Florian Hassel in today's "Frankfurter Rundschau" describes Putin as a "press tsar." He recalls Mikhail Berger -- until 16 April the editor in chief of the prestigious and outspoken "Segodnya" newspaper -- telling the story of how Putin refused on principle to speak to journalists from either "Segodnya" or "Itogi," and quotes Putin as saying: "I only speak to people who share my opinion." Hassel, considering the latest crackdown on Russian media, comments: "If matters continue at this rate, any Russians wanting to know what is really going on in their country will again have to get their radios out of storage and tune to shortwaves to listen to the formerly hostile BBC and Deutsche Welle broadcasts."


Helene Despic-Popovic writes in the French "Liberation": "[Dmitry Biryukov], the director of the Sem Dney publishing house which publishes 'Segodnya' (circulation 67,000) and 'Itogi' (circulation 85,000), announced his intention to close 'Segodnya,' citing as the reason the paper's accumulated losses. The closure was scheduled for the first of May. But on Monday evening [16 April], [Biryukov] -- who owns 25 percent [of Sem Dney] and is allied with Gazprom, which holds 25 percent plus one share [of Sem Dney] -- halted the publication of an already prepared issue."

She continues: "The Sem Dney director, who denies having wanted to 'do a favor for the government,' has blamed 'Segodnya''s fired editor Mikhail Berger, saying: 'I am concerned, above all, with the profitability of our publishing house. We have spent no less than $3 million on 'Segodnya.' This money can serve other projects.' But these explanations don't satisfy Russia's critical journalists. 'Itogi,' which has license to reprint certain articles from the U.S. magazine 'Newsweek,' is profitable and has been so since the year after it was first published, in 1996, its editor (Sergei Parkhomenko) has said."


An editorial in the "Los Angeles Times" comments on Israel's mounting military confrontations. The paper says: "Israel says its purpose in attacking a Syrian radar site in Lebanon was not to provoke its bitterest enemy into a new military confrontation but to pressure it to restrain [the Islamist guerrilla group] Hezbollah. [The strike also reflects] its anger over the casualties it has taken along the Lebanese border [and] also its frustration over being unable to control the Palestinian intifada."

It adds: "Palestinian and other Arab leaders want the United States to reinvolve itself, because they believe it alone has leverage over Israel. The Bush administration's response -- and it is the right one -- is that no effective U.S. role is possible until both sides signal they are ready to suspend hostilities and resume serious talks. Washington continues to wait for such a sign."


Britain's "Daily Telegraph" says in an editorial that the United States is sending "mixed signals" in its response to the Mideast crisis. The paper says the 16 April air strike was "far more justifiable than earlier [Israeli] raids on Lebanese territory, which caused unacceptably large numbers of civilian casualties and did not discomfit the Syrians." But, it adds: "Conflicting signals emerge from America. The Secretary of State, Colin Powell, has condemned all sides equally; but others in the administration [wish] to maintain the Clintonian approach of downplaying evidence of Syria's role in terrorism. They believe that Syria is crucial to the success of the various tracks of the 'peace process' and that to marginalize it would weaken the cohesion of the anti-Iraqi coalition."

It adds: "Such fears are, however, based upon false premises. The talks with Syria on the Golan Heights have made little progress and in any case Damascus has been encouraging Palestinian militancy. [Over] the past eight years, America's nervously multilateralist policy has not strengthened her position in the region, or that of her allies, one bit."


An editorial in the "Wall Street Journal Europe" asks: "Are Germans lazy?" It goes on: "That's not their reputation, but Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder" -- asked to explain why his country has 600,000 unfilled jobs when nearly four million people are unemployed -- "has set off a controversy [among the center-left Social Democratic Party] with his frustrated remark that 'there's no right to laziness in our society.'"

It adds: "The answer is of course that Germans are not lazy, but that they are, more or less, rational. If unemployment benefits are generous enough -- which they are -- and the penalties for not taking an offered job mild enough -- which they are -- people will choose to stay on the dole rather than go to work. This should surprise no one."

It adds: "The idea that making welfare more lucrative than work won't lead to chronically high unemployment [is nonsense]. Mr. Schroeder has identified the problem. But if he wants a solution, the welfare system itself will have to be addressed."


Finally, English professor Robert Phillipson writes in the British "Guardian" that in Brussels, "some languages are more equal than others." Phillipson writes: "The 11 official languages (Danish, Dutch, English, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, and Swedish) of the 15 members of the EU have equal rights. [But] since there has never been a close fit between language and state in Europe, three of Belgium's languages are in use -- Dutch, French and German -- and two of Finland's -- Finnish and Swedish. The only language from Spain, however, is Spanish, even though there are more speakers of Catalan than of Danish or Finnish. Many languages in Europe have no EU rights." He concludes: "Countries applying for EU membership have probably assumed that their languages will have the same rights as other official languages. This is most unlikely, since the present interpretation and translation services are ineffective and will be even more unworkable when new states join the EU."

(Dora Slaba contributed to this Press Review)