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Media Matters: June 28, 2005

28 June 2005, Volume 5, Number 12
By Julie A. Corwin

Changes have been rippling through Russia's print-media market in recent weeks, as owners are selling off stakes and reshuffling their management teams. Some analysts suspect the goal of these measures is to boost pliability rather than profitability. With State Duma elections scheduled for December 2007 and presidential elections the following spring, it would seem that it is not too early to start planning.

It's particularly not too early when you consider the "planner" -- a presidential administration that rarely leaves anything to chance. With national television already largely cleansed of controversial political content, the print media and the Internet remain among the few areas left in Russia for relative freedom of political expression.

Several important changes have taken place in the print sector in recent times. The Kommersant publishing company's board of directors on 22 June named Vyacheslav Borodulov as the new editor in chief of the influential "Kommersant-Daily," and Vladimir Lenskii was named general director of Kommersant publishing.

It was announced this month that metals magnate Iskander Makhmudov and his long-time business partner, Andrei Bokarev, each acquired 25 percent stakes in Rodionov publishing, which owns the weekly newsmagazine "Profil," Russian media reported on 9 June. On 21 June, Rodionov publishing became sole proprietor of the magazine "Kompaniya" and it is in talks to acquire a stake in "Versiya," reported. The company plans to launch a Russian-language version of "Business Week" in September, "The Moscow Times" reported on 9 June.

Telekominvest purchased the weekly "Ogonek" from OVA-Press and reinstated its former editor in chief Viktor Loshak, new agencies reported on 17 June.

And, in perhaps the biggest development in the sector in recent months, Gazprom-Media announced on 3 June that it has purchased a controlling stake in "Izvestiya," one of Russia's most respected and oldest daily newspapers. Gazprom bought the stake from ProfMedia, the media arm of oligarch Vladimir Potanin's Interros group.

In an interview with "Novye izvestiya" on 21 June, sociologist Boris Kagarlitskii commented that "nothing happens in the media market by accident, particularly on such a large scale." "In Russia today, media resources have more political value than commercial," Kagarlitskii said.

Igor Yakovenko, secretary-general of the Russian Union of Journalists, agreed that profits were likely not the motivating factor, at least with regard to the sale of "Izvestiya" to Gazprom-Media, according to Ekho Moskvy on 3 June. He noted that when Gazprom took over NTV in 2001, it was Russia's strongest television company, and now it has slid to third place.

Former "Izvestiya" Editor in Chief Raf Shakirov explained that during the September 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, the print media showed a different story than television and, in order to prevent future such situations, "it was decided that print information should be brought into line." Shakirov stepped down from "Izvestiya" on 6 September 2004 under heavy pressure from ProfMedia over a controversial photograph that appeared on the front page of the daily during the Beslan crisis.

The liberal-leaning listeners of Ekho Moskvy seem to agree with Shakirov's assessment. In an express opinion poll, the station asked whether recent changes in the media market are connected with the upcoming presidential election. The response was an overwhelming "yes" from 92 percent of almost 1,000 respondents.

However, other observers are less certain that political considerations are necessarily guiding the recent changes. Yelena Bystrova, public-relations manager for "Vedomosti," told on 20 June that the mass media in Russia will gradually stop being instruments of political influence, and "the media that have been built on the old principle need to change." Likewise, "Izvestiya" Editor in Chief Vladimir Borodin told Ekho Moskvy that he would hesitate to conclude the daily was sold for the Kremlin's propaganda purposes during the elections. "Ogonek" Editor in Chief Viktor Loshak also rejected any possible political context to his weekly's changing owners. He told that "Ogonek" has a circulation of only 60,000 copies and can hardly influence the outcome of an election. "Therefore the process is absolutely within the framework of business," he concluded. noted that Plutarch once remarked that "mutual deference and bonhomie, if not preceded by struggle, bespeak inertia and timidity, though they have been unjustly termed like-mindedness." If Gazprom-Media intends to institute editorial-policy changes at "Izvestiya," they would be wise to effect them piecemeal and long after the attention has died away. Borodin, in the meantime, knows he is on shaky ground, since it is not uncommon for a new owner to want an new management team. Borodin was named editor in chief by ProfMedia following Shakirov's resignation.

Commenting in "Novye izvestiya," Institute for Political Research Director Sergei Markov saw former oligarch and proclaimed Putin opponent Boris Berezovskii as the catalyst for recent changes in the media market, rather than the looming 2007-08 elections. He asserted that the majority of the changes in the media market, and not just in the print sector, are connected with the Berezovskii's moves and the need to forestall an Orange Revolution in Russia.

In a comment before the appointments of Lenskii and Borodulov at "Kommersant" were announced, Markov asserted that "Berezovskii is forming a powerful political team that he hopes will enable him to win the future political battle." "The authorities are taking steps, too," he said. "Establishing the [English-language] Russia Today TV news channel is an attempt to brainwash the international community which plays an important role in the legitimization of regimes that come to power in the wake of colored revolutions."

Other commentators, including Gleb Charkasov, do not question that Russia's election cycle has already begun. Writing in on 22 June, Charkasov argued that the massive information attack on Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov is just one indication. Ivanov has been often touted as a likely Putin successor. Since late May, Russia's chief military prosecutor has held two news conferences highlighting a rise in crime in the military and suggesting on both occasions that the root cause of the crime wave is the "lack of discipline" in the armed forces. Ultimately, Ivanov's success or failure at the ballot box will be made on television, but in the meantime, when the battle for successor has not yet been won, it seems more than likely that a few prestigious dailies and weeklies, even with small circulations, could make a difference in this inter-elite struggle.

By Jeremy Bransten

Communist and right-wing parties in Russia may not have many opinions in common. But they do agree on one thing. They want an end to what they call de facto censorship on Russian national television and radio that keeps them mostly off the air. A broad coalition of political parties and civic organizations calling itself Russia's Committee on Defending Freedom of Expression has asked President Vladimir Putin to return freewheeling political debates and live programming to Russian state broadcast media. Some media observers welcome the initiative, but say the problems facing Russia's broadcast media reflect a much deeper crisis in Russian journalism and will not be solved that easily.

It's not often in Russia that representatives of groups like the National Bolshevik Party (NBP), whose party symbol is a hammer-and-sickle variation of the Nazi swastika, share a platform with leaders of the pro-Western liberal intelligentsia like Grigorii Yavlinskii or Irina Khakamada.

But that is just what happened on 16 June in Moscow, when the Committee on Defending Freedom of Expression convened. The committee, as Yavlinskii's press secretary Yevgeniya Dillendorf told RFE/RL, is a diverse group.

"The Communists, the Motherland party, the Party of Pensioners have joined; the Motherland party's youth wing, the [National Bolshevik] Limonovites, the Union of Rightist Forces, and Khakamada's Our Choice, in addition to a lot of human rights organizations, the Union of Journalists -- all of these groups have joined," Dillendorf said.

They are united by one idea, perhaps best expressed by the 18th-century French writer and philosopher Voltaire, who famously said: "I disagree with what you have to say, but will fight to the death to protect your right to say it."

Russia's opposition parties and civic groups want an end to what they say is the government's monopoly on broadcast media. The Committee on Defending Freedom of Expression has written a letter to Putin calling for the abolition of what they term "open" and "hidden" censorship on radio and television so that they can get their views across to Russia's people. They are now working on a charter of ethics that they want media organizations to sign, to guarantee access to the media for all political groups.

Igor Yakovenko, general secretary of Russia's Union of Journalists, recently accused the government of pursuing a policy of "nationalizing" media outlets. Independent television networks such as the former NTV have been brought back under de facto state control and as a result, says Yakovenko, substantive political discussion programs and analysis have been replaced by pro- Kremlin reporting and entertainment.

Dillendorf puts it more bluntly. "There is a list of 'closed' topics and there is a list of people who are not supposed to be invited to appear in the media," she said.

Dillendorf says she has no illusions that the letter and charter the committee is producing will change things by themselves. But she hopes these actions will rouse Russian society from its apathy.

"Of course, this is a question which will not be resolved with a letter or a charter," she told RFE/RL. "It is question of public perception and public attention. So, if we unite -- and I don't mean at the organizational level, but on a fundamental level -- if this unity gives an impulse to society so that it perceives this as a real problem, not 10 people in Moscow, but hundreds of thousands throughout the country, [then it will be a success.]"

Yosif Dzhyaloshinskii, a media analyst and journalism professor at Moscow's Higher School of Economics, agrees that the media landscape in Russia -- especially television -- has become much less diverse in recent years. But he does not believe that giving politicians more television time to promote their party platforms is a solution.

"The main problem for Russia -- and I will try to phrase this succinctly -- is not the fact that there is no freedom of speech for politicians, but that there is no access to honest, conscientious, objective information," Dzhyaloshinskii said. "It is impossible to find out how much money has been spent in Chechnya; it is impossible to find out how many people have died there, on both sides; it is impossible to find out about any program being prepared by the government. In reality, fewer than 20 percent of Russia's citizens have any kind of intelligible information not just about the workings of the federal government, but about what city hall in their own municipality is doing."

Dzhyaloshinskii says that unfortunately, it is journalists themselves who are the problem. In the waning days of the Soviet Union, journalists enjoyed tremendous prestige and they took pride in their work. That, says Dzhyaloshinskii, is because they had a mission.

"When perestroika began in 1987, 1988, 1989, journalists as a profession were the initiators and communicators of this process," he said. "In other words, it was journalists who took on the role of a then-nonexistent civil society. This gave many journalists a feeling of importance and-or responsibility. I'm also a journalist, and until 2000, I hosted an analytical program on the Mir television station. I remember this feeling that we were doing something truly useful and important."

The situation began to change during the 1990s when oligarch businessmen acquired a large slice of the media market and pressured journalists to write stories to order. The government soon got in on the act, especially during former President Boris Yeltsin's 1996 re-election campaign, when cash handouts were distributed in exchange for pro-Kremlin coverage.

Many journalists, says Dzhyaloshinskii, stopped seeing themselves as the nation's conscience and saw their skill as a commodity to be sold to the highest bidder.

Now that the Putin administration has pushed the oligarchs out of much of the media business, he adds, most journalists see their role almost as loyal state bureaucrats.

"I just returned yesterday morning from the city of Chelyabinsk, where I gave a speech to the editors of a major regional newspaper," Dzhyaloshinskii told RFE/RL. "There were about 50 people there. I told them that newspapers must be made independent and that they must learn to earn money -- but to do it honestly. I spoke for about three hours and then they cursed me for the following three hours, for having come from Moscow to fill their heads with confusion. As one editor put it: 'Our main problem is to get money from the authorities and to calmly advance their interests.' Another editor phrased it even better: 'Our role is to get money from the government to explain to the people why the government is pursuing the best policies.' This coming from a large, serious journalistic enterprise -- from editors of a major newspaper! This is the situation the Russian community of journalists finds itself in."

Until Russia's journalists -- not just media owners -- adopt an ethics charter and ask themselves why they got into the profession in the first place, Dzyaloshinskii believes calls for the Kremlin to revoke "censorship" will have little effect.

By Claire Bigg

A court in Smolensk, in western Russia, has sentenced a radio journalist to five years in prison for defamation after he broadcast accusations that three top-ranking local officials ordered the murder of his former boss, the director of an independent radio station in Smolensk.

On 26 July 2000, unidentified assailants shot dead the director of Smolensk's independent Radio Vesna in the staircase of his apartment building.

When journalist Nikolai Goshko went on the air the next day to suggest the then local governor and two other top-ranking officials might have been involved in the murder, he might have thought he was asking for trouble. But he probably didn't suspect that his words would cost him five years in prison.

However, a court in Smolensk recently sentenced Goshko to 61 months in prison for defamation after the three officials pressed charges against him.

The sentence has deeply concerned media watchdogs both in Russia and abroad, particularly since the prosecution had only requested a one-year suspended sentence.

Oleg Panfilov is the director of Russia's Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, an organization that monitors abuse against journalists in the former Soviet Union. He told RFE/RL that Goshko's sentence is the heaviest of its kind ever handed down in Russia and illustrates a growing tendency among officials to sue journalists who criticize them.

"This is the longest sentence handed to a Russian journalist for slander," Panfilov said. "The article on slander in the Russian legislation is now very popular. In the past five years, large numbers of criminal cases have been opened following complaints by officials of various levels -- an average of up to 35 criminal cases a year."

The maximum prison term for slander in Russia is three years. The court justified its unusually harsh ruling by saying that Goshko had already received a one-year suspended sentence and a five-year probation period for fraud in 1996.

Panfilov admitted that Goshko could have displayed more tact in his radio declarations in 2000 and should perhaps have offered some evidence to back up his claims that the officials were involved in the murder. But he nonetheless called the sentence "absurd" and stressed that the journalist had not technically accused the three officials.

"The accusation is stupid, because Nikolai Goshko suggested live on radio five years ago that the governor of this region [Smolensk] could be involved in the murder of Sergei Novikov. These were just suppositions," Panfilov said. "Sentencing a journalist to five years in prison for such words is absurd."

Panfilov said he had little doubt that local officials had pressured the judge into handing down the heavy sentence.

Panfilov said a new doctrine on information security -- signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin -- is at the heart of the sharp increase in the number of defamation cases against journalists. Officials, he said, are using this document to persecute journalists.

"Officials, especially in Russia's regions, interpreted this document as a program of actions against journalists," Panfilov said. "The doctrine firstly implied the support of the state press, and secondly called on the independent press to be responsible. But Russian officials understand responsibility as obedience."

This is not the first time media watchdogs have spoken out in defense of a Russian journalist sentenced for defamation. In 2003, German Galkin, an editor in the Russian city of Chelyabinsk, was given a 1 1/2-year sentence for alleged defamation of two local officials.

The Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, together with a number of leading media rights groups, actively lobbied for Galkin to be cleared. Galkin was released shortly after being imprisoned.

Panfilov was reluctant to speculate on Goshko's fate. One thing he said he does not expect, however, is to see Russian journalists and public defend Goshko.

"Goshko's trial is an exceptional case. But there are numerous other instances when the authorities destroy a popular newspaper or a popular television station, or persecute journalists in various ways," Panfilov said. "The public opinion remains silent, so I am afraid that the fate of Nikolai Goshko will depend on international organizations rather than on Russian journalists."

The Glasnost Foundation, a leading media watchdog, has asked the Smolensk court in a letter to justify its ruling.

The New-York based Committee to Protect Journalists has declared it was "outraged" at the sentence.

By Claire Bigg

Russia wants to shake off its "bear" image, and it is planning to do so by launching a new English-language satellite television station, Russia Today. Russian authorities, who are heavily subsidizing the project, announced on 7 June that Russia Today will start broadcasting before the end of the year in the United States, Europe, and some Asian countries. In Russia, the venture has inspired a mix of interest and apprehension, raising fears that the station will turn into a Kremlin propaganda machine.

The government had long floated the idea of creating a Russian English-language television station aimed at improving Russia's standing abroad.

In 2001, then-Media Minister Mikhail Lesin lamented the negative coverage of Russia in the West and had declared the country must promote a positive image for itself if it wanted to avoid "always looking like bears."

Speaking at a press conference on 7 June, the head of the Federal Press and Mass Communications Agency, Mikhail Seslavinskii, agreed that the world needs to know more about Russia. "A big segment that exists in other developed countries was missing [in Russia] -- an account in English of what is happening now in the Russian Federation," he said.

Seslavinskii said Russia Today could not have been created without help from the government, which has earmarked some $30 million to get the station off the ground.

But he was quick to dismiss claims that the Kremlin -- which has been slammed in the West for clamping down on independent media -- will have a say in the channel's editorial policy.

"I just can't image a special department somewhere in the corridors of power where people would sit and read the news in English, and cross things out with a red pen -- 'We say this, we don't say that, there is a grammatical mistake here and two commas missing there,'" Seslavinskii said. "The company will work on its own as an independent editorial office."

Russia Today's Editor in Chief is Margarita Simonyan, a 25-year-old former Kremlin reporter for the Rossiya state television station.

She says the new channel, which in the long run hopes to support itself through advertising, will offer a Russian view on world news.

She vowed the channel will provide a platform of expression for all political forces, including opposition parties.

Simonyan concedes that competition for global English-language television is tough, but nonetheless has ambitious plans for the new station and its 300-strong team.

"Of course we understand that it is difficult to compete with the big companies in the world that exist on this market," Simonyan said. "But we have some things they don't have. I don't know if you do, but I don't know a single foreigner who wasn't surprised the first time he came to Russia. I think this happens precisely because Russia is not often portrayed in the way it looks when one arrives here. I would like to show my country the way I see it, the way my editorial team and the people with whom I work see it."

Some observers have welcomed the project as an opportunity to tell foreigners more about a country that largely remains an enigma abroad.

Yassen Zassourskii, the dean of the journalism department at Moscow State University, says the station has a good chance to attract viewers, provided it remains objective and does not focus too much on Russia.

"Much will depend on how the channel's service is organized," he said. "This is one thing I know: it will get ratings, success, and it will be watched if it provides extensive and varied information on what is happening in the world, on Russia's point of view on this, and is sufficiently many-sided."

Others, however, are not convinced.

Igor Yakovenko, the general-secretary of the Russian Union of Journalists, is convinced Russia Today will become a propaganda tool for the Kremlin and is doomed to failure.

He considers the creation of the channel to be positive in itself, but condemns the fact that it will be broadcast within the country as well as abroad: "The presence of a state monopoly in the media makes attempts at improving Russia's external image problematic. The United States forbids its own state radio station to broadcast in the U.S., because it is bad for people's health. Russia has the opposite policy. They think propaganda should hit their own citizens first. This is a big problem."

Russia Today is set to begin broadcasting before the end of the year with the backing of the state-run RIA-Novosti news agency and television station Rossiya.

By Gulnoza Saidazimova

Uzbek police have again detained independent journalist Tolqin Qoraev, just two days after his release from jail in the southern city of Qarshi. Qoraev was later released, but human rights activists say he is just one of several victims of a government crackdown on the independent media that has intensified since the unrest in Andijon in mid-May. The media harassment was outlined in reports released this week by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Moscow-based Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations.

Qoraev, a correspondent for the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) as well as Iranian Radio's Uzbek Service, spent 10 days in an Uzbek prison on charges of "hooliganism."

Qoraev, who once freelanced for RFE/RL, was released on 14 June. Two days later, for reasons that remain unclear, he was again detained. And just as suddenly, he was released again the same day.

Qoraev later spoke to RFE/RL's Tajik Service, saying he still does not understand why he was detained a second time. "I don't know, they didn't give any explanation," he said. "I was on my way to Tashkent, where I wanted to get medical treatment; they forced me to return."

Local and international human rights advocates say his detention is a part of a government campaign against independent journalists who have covered, among other issues, the recent unrest in Andijon.

On 14 June, the OSCE released a report listing several examples of harassment of Russian and Western media by Uzbek authorities during and after the unrest, in which hundreds of civilians were believed to have been killed after Uzbek troops opened fire on demonstrators.

The OSCE report was prepared in collaboration with the Moscow-based Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, which released a 30-page report on the Andijon events earlier in the week.

"First of all, we released this report to demonstrate the scale of violations of journalists' rights who worked in Andijon since 13 May," the center's director, Oleg Panfilov, told RFE/RL. "The second purpose of the report is to demonstrate how widely Uzbek laws are violated regarding dissemination of objective information; how Uzbekistan's constitution, which declares freedom of speech and citizens' rights to get independent information, is violated as well."

Panfilov said the center faced numerous problems while working on the report. "I should say, it was quite difficult to do it because, first of all, the telephone connection was very bad, especially during the first days [of the Andijon crisis] from 13 to 15 May," Panfilov said. "Secondly, many journalists, particularly Uzbeks, were afraid to talk to us as they were threatened [by Uzbek authorities]. They were told that they and their relatives would have a lot of problems. Uzbek journalists told us that Uzbek security service officers were collecting information about names of their children and other relatives."

Both reports focus on coverage of the Andijon events and Tashkent's handling of the media during the crisis. The Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations as well as the OSCE's top media representative concluded that the Uzbek government blocked news coverage and intensified harassment of journalists and of Internet and television outlets during and after the events in Andijon.

The findings included the following:

* On 13 May, local Internet providers blocked access to most Russian websites, including leading news sources such as and Local Internet cafes introduced a 10,000 Uzbek-sum ($10) fine for logging on to independent sites -- twice as much as the fine for accessing pornographic sites.

International cable television channels were also blocked.

Foreign correspondents were expelled from Andijon on 15 May. Some local journalists, like Qoraev, were later imprisoned.

Meanwhile, state-run media launched a propaganda campaign featuring its own version of events and criticizing foreign media coverage. Uzbek journalists working for foreign media, including RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, have become a subject of a special campaign. They are labeled "traitors to their people and to their motherland" in the Uzbek press.

"As they [state-controlled media] say, foreign media correspondents equipped with advanced technology misinterpret information, edit all pieces as they wish and broadcast," said Alimardon Annaev, a Tashkent-based independent media analyst. "OK, let's assume they [foreign media] don't tell the truth and there is a lot of slandering of the Uzbek government. Then why don't the Uzbek media show pictures of 'terrorists' and 'Islamic extremists' who were in Andijon on 13 May, as they say?"

Annaev said the state-controlled media are losing the information battle with foreign media as they are unable to provide proof of their version of the Andijon events.

Panfilov agreed. He said the Uzbek authorities are used to using these methods despite being ineffective. "There's nothing unusual in this, as [Uzbek President] Islam Karimov came to power with the first wave of post-Soviet presidents after being the first secretary of the Uzbek Communist Party," Panfilov said. "He and his administration still have a Soviet type of thinking. They believe that publishing several articles in their press against foreign media helps improve the situation. [However], the reality has changed and despite all attempts by the Uzbek authorities to hide information, people learn the truth."

The OSCE report says that a lack of cooperation between government sources and independent human rights activists and journalists is making it impossible to establish facts about the Andijon unrest as well as the exact death toll.

"The gap between the government and press reports on the events, and the differing casualty figures, are telling signs of an information blockade; of a lack of mutually-agreed verification procedures; and of a lack of cooperation between the authorities and the press," the report says.

"Working with the press in times of crisis is a learning process, but it is also an important contribution to the peaceful solution of crises, as it is part of society's right to information," it adds.

The OSCE's Vienna-based media representative who contacted Uzbek authorities while preparing the report also offered to arrange training courses for Uzbek officials to ensure cooperation between the government and the press.

Panfilov said the government's tough approach to the media is unlikely to ease. He said Qoraev's case only proves it.

(RFE/RL's Uzbek and Tajik services contributed to this report.)