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Инопресса >> CPJ - briefing in Russia
THE FIRST YEAR OF VLADIMIR PUTIN'S PRESIDENCY has been
a trying time for Russian civil society generally and for the media in
particular. The new president has steadfastly worked toward Soviet-style
centralized control over the vast country, battling Yeltsin-era oligarchs,
wayward regional leaders, and non-governmental organizations. All this activity
has been undertaken under the Orwellian slogan of creating "manageable
democracy," although it would be more accurate to call it "managed."
"When the nation mobilizes its forces to achieve some task, that imposes obligations on everyone, including the media," Kremlin spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky told the newspaper Kommersant in January. Yastrzhembsky was referring to the Russian war against separatist rebels in Chechnya, but pressure to toe the Kremlin line has spread throughout Russian political life.
Putin has waged a highly selective war against powerful business tycoons (locally known as "oligarchs") and regional politicians. Pro-Kremlin oligarchs such as Roman Abramovich and Rem Vyakirov have prospered under the new regime. Corrupt and dictatorial regional leaders have been tolerated if they demonstrate proper servility in their dealings with the center. In January, 2001, the Duma adopted a Kremlin-sponsored bill that would allow many of its regional allies, notably Tartarstan president Mintimer Shaimiyev, to run for a third term.
Corruption in Putin's inner circle has been ignored, meanwhile. Putin's chief of staff, Aleksandr Voloshin, is currently the subject of three criminal investigations. On December 13, well-documented corruption charges against former Kremlin property manager Pavel Borodin were inexplicably dropped and the incriminating evidence declared a state secret. The Swiss investigator working on the case said bluntly, "In my view, a double standard of jurisprudence has been established—one for friends, one for opponents."
Putin has worked hard to bring all political activity under his own control, making heavy-handed use of the Kremlin bureaucracy and the security organs. In the spring, he divided up the entire country into seven federal districts and appointed his personal representatives to oversee them. Six of these representatives were selected from the security organs or the military, and all have endorsed the creation of what they euphemistically call "unified information space" within their districts.
Eat the press
These representatives will have primary responsibility for local implementation of the national Information Security Doctrine that the Security Council adopted in September. This doctrine argues that Russia faces a number of foreign and domestic threats in the sphere of information and advocates strengthening state-controlled media throughout the country by increasing direct financial support, creating a pool of loyal journalists, and giving favored media better access to information.
Putin's drive to centralize control of political life and the media has met with little resistance from the Russian people, who are largely fed up with the irresponsibility and corruption that permeated Yeltsin-era Russia. Neither oligarchs nor local autocrats are very popular, so there is little public resistance to having Putin take them down a notch.
Particularly outside Moscow and St. Petersburg, most Russians are profoundly distrustful of private initiative generally and private media in particular. Surveys regularly show that hinterland residents trust state-controlled newspapers more than private ones, although regional elites tend to prefer private newspapers. In July, a national survey revealed that a full 29 percent of provincial Russians think "the existence of non-state media is harmful." Another poll showed that only 33 percent of Russians living outside Moscow agree that freedom of the press is presently under threat. In September, yet another poll found that 38 percent of Russians believe "increased state control of the media would be good for Russia," while another 25 percent said such control would not matter one way or the other.
In June, Putin charged that commercial media had become "mass misinformation outlets and...a means of struggle against the state." The conglomerate Media-Most (which controls the national NTV network, the national radio network Ekho Moskvy, and the daily newspaper Segodnya) worked tirelessly throughout 2000 to persuade the public that Putin was plotting a return to a Soviet-style regime of information control. This argument has made little impression. Instead, the Russian public has generally endorsed Putin's relentlessly stated view that the private media are irresponsible and unpatriotic.
Press control: a primer
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 Vladimir Gusinsky over control of Media-Most, and with over the partially privatized public television network ORT. Both oligarchs fled abroad in 2000, facing criminal investigations in Russia and the likelihood of losing control of their media properties.
The second track, which has been pursued quietly so far, involves weakening the control of regional political forces over local mass media. The first step in this effort was the gradual shifting of control over press subsidies from local authorities to a centralized Media Ministry. The efforts of the seven presidential representatives to create additional, federally controlled regional media outlets and the adoption of the Information Security Doctrine in September are also crucial to this effort.
Russian authorities finance thousands of media outlets via 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), 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 non-state media.
No more Kursks
For Putin, the most damaging media event
of 2000 was the August sinking of the nuclear submarine Kursk in the Barents Sea.
The privately NTV and ORT networks both castigated the military, the government,
and Putin personally for their handling of the crisis. The state-controlled RTR
network, which was the only media outlet allowed to send a correspondent on
board the Kursk rescue ship, was noticeably more docile. When Putin met with the
families of the drowned seamen, he blasted the press for its allegedly
insensitive and unpatriotic coverage, while his government moved to prevent
similar publicity meltdowns during future crises.
During 2000, which saw a spate of regional
elections covering roughly two-thirds of the country, the Central Elections
Commission also emerged as a major tool of media control. The Law on Elections
grants the elections commission broad powers, including the right to censure
media outlets and disqualify political candidates. Such was the fate of Kursk
governor Aleksandr Rutskoi, who was stricken from the ballot on the eve of the
election. This move was widely interpreted as punishment for Rutskoi's criticism
of Putin during the Kursk submarine crisis. Even Press Minister Mikhail Lesin
stated that under the Law on Elections, "the mass media basically have no
right to even mention the name of any candidate or party."
In December 2000, the government announced
that the state-controlled RTR network would be restructured and partially
privatized. Initial Press Ministry indications were that ownership of broadcast
facilities would be separated from that of production studios, although the
state will maintain majority control of both. The Press Ministry also announced
its intention to introduce licensing requirements for magazines and newspapers
beginning in 2001. Such licenses would be issued (and, of course, withdrawn) by
the Press Ministry itself, providing a powerful lever of central control over
print media around the country.
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