As Vladimir Putin jousts with business magnates and political kingpins throughout his vast country, press freedom is the last thing on anyone’s mind So much the worse for Russian democracy.
St. Petersburg, September 22, 2000 — The frenzy of media activity in Russia during the Kursk submarine disaster has again focused attention on the state of the Russian press. Some have expressed the hope that President Vladimir Putin, having been stung by the sharp public criticism of his government’s handling of the crisis, has learned a lesson in democratic leadership and will consequently encourage more official openness.
Don’t count on it. In his first major public pronouncement after the crisis, Putin castigated private media for using the disaster to “gain political capital or secure some group interests.” The smart money is on the former KGB bureaucrat concluding that state management of the press must be more formally institutionalized than it has been to date.
The Kremlin’s task will be eased by the fact that much of the Russian population seems either hostile or indifferent to independent journalism. A national poll taken immediately before the Kursk incident revealed that 38 percent of Russians believe “increased state control of the media would be good for Russia.” Another 25 percent said that such control wouldn’t matter one way or the other.
The limits of independence
What a difference a few months can make in Russia. In mid-May, armed and masked tax police raided the offices of Media-Most, the parent company of Russia’s only non-state national television network, NTV. Officials claimed, improbably, that the raid had nothing to do with NTV’s persistent criticisms of the Putin government.
On May 15, 62 private newspapers and television stations across the country united to publish a special-edition newspaper protesting the raid and denouncing efforts to limit press freedom. This unprecedented action was the first nationwide attempt to defend civil rights in post-Soviet Russia. Riding this wave of enthusiasm, Media-Most owner Vladimir Gusinsky joined forces with former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev to create a free-press watchdog organization that would resist state encroachment on civil liberties.
But the pressure on Media-Most continued. On June 13, Gusinsky was arrested on embezzlement charges, spending the next four days in Moscow’s notorious Butyrskaya Prison. Although he was released after pledging not to leave the country, Gusinsky faced the possibility of ten years in prison.
On July 7, Deputy General Prosecutor Vladimir Kolmogorov sent an official letter to the Duma, claiming that Gusinsky’s “criminal activity, directed toward gaining control over federal property, has been proven by objective evidence, including the testimony of witnesses, documents, the conclusions of experts, and other materials relating to the case.”
Less than three weeks later, on July 27, Gusinsky fled the country after these “proven” charges were inexplicably dropped. At the same time, rumors began flying that the huge Russian natural-gas monopoly Gazprom, which is nearly 40 percent state-owned, was about to take control of Media-Most. If this deal is consummated, it will mark nothing less than the return to a Soviet-style state monopoly on national television, since the state already controls the other two major networks (RTR and ORT). The takeover would undoubtedly “reinforce state control over TV news coverage and restrain the oligarchs,” as media analyst Boris Timoshenko told The Russia Journal. (Gusinsky has since repudiated the deal, announcing from exile that he only agreed to sell out under duress.)
As if all this were not surreal enough, while Gusinsky was scouring the West looking for investors to save his besieged network, the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development announced on August 8 that it was extending a US$250 million credit to Gazprom, creating the real possibility that the Kremlin’s takeover of the independent media will be indirectly financed with Western development funds.
Berezovsky to the rescue
Meanwhile, leading oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who currently owns 49 percent of the state television channel ORT along with several other media properties, including the influential business daily Kommersant, has issued declaration after declaration opposing President Putin’s efforts to subdue the media. In the process, this ultimate insider has improbably reinvented himself as a liberal democrat and champion of press freedom.
ORT backed Putin heavily during the spring presidential campaign, but turned more critical after Berezovsky became the focus of an intensive money-laundering investigation. Earlier this summer, Berezovsky abruptly announced that he would sell his ORT shares to the government, which already holds the controlling 51 percent stake. Berezovsky reversed himself on August 8 with an announcement that he would not sell if Gazprom took over NTV, since he could not allow the state to monopolize national television broadcasting. On September 4, he published an open letter to Putin announcing that he intended to transfer his ORT shares to a group of prominent journalists and intelligentsia, many of whom already work for him.
In the letter, Berezovsky alleged that Putin’s aides had offered him a choice between giving up his shares or following Gusinsky to jail. “If I comply with your ultimatum,” he wrote, “tele-information will cease to exist in Russia and will be replaced by tele-propaganda, controlled by your bureaucrats.” Berezovsky has also announced that he intends to form an opposition political movement. He has been traveling the regions to drum up support among Russia’s governors, who are at odds with Putin over his efforts to centralize all political power.
Berezovsky’s declaration of political independence seems particularly suspect given the extent to which he and other oligarchs flaunt their direct access to the highest levels of government. The closed-door “cabinet” meeting between Putin and the country’s leading oligarchs on July 28, which was touted as the end of oligarchy in Russia, was really nothing more than its apotheosis. No one in Russia seemed to question the propriety of such a meeting. Nor did many people speculate on what the president could possibly have said to these men that he could not say in public.
As a rule, Berezovsky and other oligarchs do not use their media to influence the government by creating public indignation (Media-Most’s aggressive coverage of the Kursk disaster was an exception). Instead, they organize press campaigns to drum up public support for whatever political decisions the oligarchs and the governments have agreed to behind closed doors. This was the case, for instance, with Yeltsin’s “miraculous” 1996 presidential victory, which was bankrolled by Berezovsky, Gusinsky, and a small coterie of their fellow tycoons.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a power triangle has emerged in Russia linking the government, the so-called oligarchs, and the media. This triangle is supremely evident at the national level, but it is also reproduced at regional and municipal levels across Russia, where it limits political decision-making to a minuscule circle of insiders.
It is an indication of the Russian government’s influence over public debate that virtually all discussion, both in Russia and abroad, has been focused on the relationship between the oligarchs and the media, ignoring the third side of the triangle, the government itself. In his state of the nation address in June, Putin laid most of the blame for the media crisis at the feet of commercial mass media. Commercial owners “use the mass media for squaring accounts with competitors and, sometimes, even turn them into mass misinformation outlets and into a means of struggle against the state,” Putin claimed.
This claim has gone largely unchallenged, since relatively few people are aware, either in Russia or the West, of the extent to which the Russian state monopolizes the production and flow of information. The oligarchs control only the so-called national newspapers, whose influence is extremely limited outside Moscow, and local private television stations. The state dominates national TV broadcasting (excepting, for the moment, the still-private NTV) and local newspapers, which are by far the most important sources of national and local information respectively.
In the Tambov region of central Russia, 1.3 million residents are served by 35 newspapers, 29 of which are wholly controlled by the mayors of the towns they serve. The city of Tambov itself, in addition to the mayor’s paper, hosts the governor’s paper and a paper run by the city council. The only private media voice in the entire region is the weekly newspaper Tambovskii Kurier, with a declared print run of just 20,000 copies. This picture is typical of the entire country.
The media state
All levels of the Russian government exert ownership control over media properties. Mayors, provincial governors, and regional presidents control their own newspapers and broadcast outlets, as do city councils, local legislatures, and the national parliament. Moscow mayor Yury Luzhkov, for example, is one of Russia’s most powerful media magnates by any standard, controlling two powerful television stations and a host of newspapers, including Literaturnaya Gazeta, Moskovskaya Pravda, Vechernaya Moskva, Metro, Kultura, and Tsentr Plus. By structuring this media empire as a quasi-private holding company called Systema, Luzhkov has effectively removed his properties from any public scrutiny.
In smaller cities and towns, the local state-controlled media are usually run directly out of the press office of the political body that controls them. Their employees are state functionaries, and in most cases they are registered formally as “municipal agencies” rather than media outlets. Consequently, their employees do not enjoy even the minimal protections that Russian law extends to journalists.
The Union of Journalists estimates that 80 percent of Russia’s newspapers are controlled by the state. However, even this startling figure is misleading for several reasons. First, the privately held 20 percent includes apolitical niche publications devoted to sports, gardening, and the like. Second, it does not take into account the fact that, especially in larger cities, state newspapers tend to publish daily, while private newspapers are overwhelmingly weeklies. Even Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth largest city, does not have a single private daily to compete with three government papers.
Because of subsidies, a state daily can often sell subscriptions for less than half the price that a private weekly must ask. Finally, the authorities make frequent use of libel suits to drain private media resources. In the Urals city of Snezhinsk, the private newspaper Otkrytaya Pozitsiya is currently facing six separate libel suits from the local Interior Ministry, the board of a local state-owned defense plant, and several municipal politicians.
Local authorities have dozens of tools for keeping private competition at bay. The governor of the Penza region, for example, once gave all the teachers in his region free subscriptions to Penzenskaya Pravda, deducting the cost from the regional budget for professional training materials. This order was only recently rescinded, after other state-subsidized newspapers in the region complained that their circulations were dropping. Complaints by private newspapers were pointedly ignored.
The government owns virtually all Russia’s printing presses and most of the print distribution networks in smaller towns. The only two private papers in the entire Kurgan region of the Urals must be printed outside the region and trucked in. And the Union of Journalists reported recently that 75 percent of the circulation of the local state newspaper Narodnaya Gazeta, in the Ulyanovsk region, is distributed to state employees in the agriculture sector, with the cost deducted from their overdue wages. Another 10 percent is distributed free at state enterprises.
The view from Red Square
Current Kremlin efforts to centralize media control have proceeded on two distinct tracks. One has been the struggle with the oligarchs, most visible in the ongoing tussle with Gusinsky over control of Media-Most. The second has been an effort to wrest control of municipal and regional newspapers from local governors.
This second track, which has been pursued very quietly so far, involves the gradual shifting of control over press subsidies from local authorities to the Press Ministry. Little is known about the mechanisms and scope of state financing of the media in Russia. An impenetrable net of regular and discretionary subsidies (including direct cash payments, rent and utility subsidies, tax breaks, in-kind newsprint contributions, and many others) has been established through national, regional and local laws. Because private newspapers are eligible for and desperate to receive many of these privileges, the subsidies tend to blur the distinction between state and nonstate media. All this confusion has greatly increased the power of local authorities across Russia.
This summer, Putin appointed seven so-called “super governors” to supervise relations between the center and the regions. These officials, six of whom were chosen from the military and the state-security apparatus, will have broad authority to make regional conditions conform to federal standards. Not surprisingly, they have already turned their attention to the media in their regions.
In the northwest region, which includes St. Petersburg, Putin’s envoy Viktor Cherkessov (formerly the local state-security chief, best known for his tireless persecution of environmentalist Aleksandr Nikitin) recently announced plans to launch a regional television channel under his personal control that would provide only “government-approved coverage.” In true Soviet style, Cherkessov lamented the absence of a “common information space” in his region and the nation.
Earlier this month, the Moscow-based Berezovsky daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta published an article that outlined the media strategy to be implemented by the super-governors in coordination with the Russian Information Agency, which was created last year to control press coverage of the war in Chechnya. This plan, which was also reported independently in the liberal Moscow weekly Obshchaya Gazeta (associated with both Gusinsky and Luzhkov), involves the creation of seven regional newspapers that the Kremlin could use to “undermine the political position of the governors in their regions and, simultaneously, create a mass tribune for explaining the positions of the president and the government.”
The most ironic aspect of this drive to centralize control of the press is that it can easily be done in the name of press freedom. On the one hand, the oligarchs have been so thoroughly vilified that the public is terrified at the mere thought of them gaining control of state media. On the other, the flagrant and notorious press-freedom abuses of regional administrations have been so well documented that few people believe newspapers should remain under their thumb.
Most Russians are profoundly distrustful of private initiative generally and private media in particular. Surveys regularly show that residents of the regions trust their state-controlled newspapers more than private ones, although private newspapers regularly rate as the “most influential” among regional elites. Last month a national survey revealed that a full 29 percent of Russians in the regions think “the existence of nonstate media is harmful.” Another poll showed that only 33 percent of Russians living outside Moscow think freedom of the press is presently under threat.
In short, there is little popular demand for a vibrant, independent press in Russia. This attitude, shared by politicians and citizens alike, makes it difficult for the country to see its way out of the present crisis. More control, more subsidies, and more bureaucracy seem to be the only possible answers. Yet Russian media could hardly be more regulated. The current basic Law on the Mass Media in Russia runs about 30 printed pages and contains 62 articles. A revised version currently under discussion consumes nearly 50 pages and has 78 articles. Among many other provisions, it mandates at least two new central bureaucracies for “resolving press-related disputes.”
“No one in their right mind would invest a kopeck in the media if this law were approved,” said independent publisher Boris Giller, whose Provintsiya company owns 21 regional papers.
Russian politicians also seem far more concerned about the state’s right to communicate its policies to the people than about the people’s right to know what the government is doing. In June, Saratov governor and Putin supporter Dmitry Ayatskov told a press conference that the president “must have the means to convey his views through the mass media without distortion.” Ayatskov was merely echoing Putin’s own words to journalists last November: “The state should have its own media outlets to communicate the official position of the government to the public.”
Most Russian politicians also reason that the government has an inherent right to conceal information that it deems unnecessary to discuss. Putin himself, while running for president this spring, famously declared that he would not reveal details of his economic plan because they would simply be criticized in the press. Likewise, Deputy Prime Minister for the Military-Industrial Complex Ilya Klebanov told journalists on August 1 that “such questions as the reform of the armed forces should not be discussed publicly in the mass media until after serious decisions have been adopted by politicians and experts.” This sort of contempt for public participation in political life is typical of politicians at all levels.
Even the Yabloko party, headed by Grigory Yablinsky and considered relatively progressive on social issues, has not offered concrete solutions to the media crisis. Instead, party leader Sergei Ivanenko proposes a new media “oversight board” that would oversee the content of television news programming. In reality, this is a censorship board that would give the Duma some say over the content of Kremlin-controlled media. When the Communists and their leftist allies proposed the same idea during the last Duma, Yabloko was quick to denounce it as the return of Soviet-style censorship.
Likewise, the Union of Journalists can imagine no better solution than for Putin to call “media leaders” to the Kremlin for a closed-door meeting “to resolve all the problems between the authorities and the mass media,” as Union general secretary Igor Yakovenko told reporters this month.
In short, all solutions proposed to date in Russia involve the further centralization of press control. The choice is between a media controlled by the oligarchs for their own selfish purposes or a media controlled by the state, promoting its own agenda and stifling independent information. To quote an old Russian expression, it is like choosing between cholera and the plague. Whatever reforms emerge out of the present dissatisfaction with the Russian media, they will certainly boil down to increased bureaucratic control over the press, which is a quiet but effective means of maintaining any closed society.
Robert Coalson is a former program director for the National Press Institute of Russia and writes a weekly column on the Russian media for The Moscow Times. He lives and works in St. Petersburg, Russia.
|Recently dismissed ORT anchorman Sergey Dorenko is not the world’s most objective journalist. On the contrary, he earned the nickname “tele-killer” for aggressive on-air attacks against the political and commercial foes of his boss, media magnate Boris Berezovsky.
Vladimir Putin owes his presidency, in large part, to Berezovsky’s money and the highly partisan campaign coverage of ORT, particularly on Dorenko’s popular Saturday evening news show. So why did the government, which owns the controlling interest in ORT, recently engineer Dorenko’s dismissal?
Dorenko’s show was suspended on September 9, the same day that Putin announced the government’s new “Information Security Doctrine.” ORT general director Konstantin Ernst yanked the show, he said, because Dorenko had defied his orders to stop discussing the government’s plan to nationalize Berezovsky’s 49 percent stake in the network.
Ernst insisted that no one from the government had been involved in his decision. A week later, Dorenko’s program was cancelled for good; Ernst, an old friend of the commentator, did not explain why.
Dorenko believes that the order to kill his program came directly from President Putin. At a September 11 press conference in Moscow, Dorenko claimed that in late August, Putin asked him to “join his team,” inviting the journalist to become his loyal mouthpiece. Dorenko claims that he turned down the offer and went on running critical coverage of the Kursk submarine disaster and the war in Chechnya.
Two weeks later, he was off the air. As one Moscow commentator put it, Dorenko “is a manifestation of what ORT is all about: a purely political project, as Berezovsky himself admits.” But if Dorenko’s account is correct, his dismissal is further evidence that Putin is determined to turn Russian politics into a monologue.—Anya Paretskaya
| On September 9, President Putin signed the Information Security Doctrine, a lengthy and ambiguous document that outlines the government’s new media policy. While the doctrine pays lip service to press freedom, it also lays out a strategy of media manipulation that recalls the worst days of the Soviet Union.
The opening paragraphs state that freedom of information is intrinsic to Russia’s national interests and that press freedom should be staunchly promoted. It also prohibits censorship and monopolization of media by the state. But after this encouraging start, the Doctrine contradicts itself by invoking shadowy enemies, both foreign and domestic, who must be fought via strict state control over the production and distribution of information.
The Doctrine argues that foreign countries threaten Russian society by strengthening the presence of their own media in the country and “taking control over” (i.e. investing in) domestic media, and recommends that this foreign encroachment be reversed.
The document also puts great emphasis on the need to strengthen state-run media by boosting financial assistance, creating a pool of loyal journalists, and giving them privileged access to information.
Various officials have repeatedly insisted that the Doctrine’s main objective is to protect freedom of information. But the document is so vague that it could be interpreted either way. And given the tendency of Russian authorities to interpret ambiguous legislation in the government’s favor, it could indeed threaten civil liberties.
The Doctrine has little legal force, since it is a policy guideline for the Security Council, an executive-branch advisory body, rather than a law passed by the Duma. But as the government clearly wants an information policy with teeth, its next move will likely be to amend the Media Law and other current press legislation.—Anya Paretskaya