New York, March 27, 2000 --- During the
1996 Russian presidential campaign, many voters were swayed by TV footage of
Boris Yeltsin jiving with a dancer at a youth rally. Pro-Yeltsin stations
splashed the footage because they wished to project an image of Yeltsin as a
dynamic, youthful reformer. The TV image that helped assure Vladimir Putin's
victory in the March 26 election, on the other hand, was that of Russian
artillery blasting Grozny to rubble.
Both images demonstrate how the Russian government has used the media to deceive
their audience. The real story in 1996 was that Yeltsin was on the brink of
another heart attack, which sympathetic Russian journalists did not report.
Today, the absence of objective reporting about the war in Chechnya, of which
acting president Putin is the architect, has kept the former KGB official's
popularity ratings high.
Throughout the conflict, virtually all Russian media have demonized Chechens and
highlighted Russian military successes. At the same time they have downplayed
the destruction of villages and cities, the plight of refugees, and allegations
of brutality and torture by Russian troops.
Independent Russian journalists worry that with so many of their colleagues
accepting the role of adjunct government flacks, the hard-won freedoms of the
post-Soviet era could be in jeopardy. Meanwhile, there are ominous signs that
independent journalism faces a bleak future under the Putin regime
In Russia, media control confers enormous political power. Consolidation of
ownership was accelerated ahead of the parliamentary elections last December.
Today it is difficult to name a single Moscow newspaper or broadcaster that is
not directly controlled by one of three competing media conglomerates. One group
is headed by business tycoon Boris Berezovsky, who is close to the Kremlin.
Berezovsky controls the state television channel ORT and a number of influential
newspapers. Another is the fiefdom of Vladimir Gusinsky, who owns NTV, the major
private television station, and several publishing interests. The third is ruled
by Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who controls TV-Tsentr and a handful of newspapers.
"The media barons have their own goals and, naturally, if journalists want
to keep their jobs they have to go along with those views," says Sergei
Sokolov, deputy director of Novaya Gazeta, one of the few surviving
independent newspapers. "The oligarchs' views may not be so apparent when
things are quiet, but it only takes an election for it to become absolutely
clear which media group a particular paper or channel belongs to."
Media bias reached fever pitch during the December parliamentary election
campaign, when facts and balance lost out to slander and mud-slinging designed
to destroy candidates' reputations. Commentators such as Sergei Dorenko, who
anchors ORT's flagship political program, blatantly supported the pro-government
party and mercilessly attacked its rivals. Though Dorenko used perhaps the
greatest array of dirty tricks, almost all media put out openly biased material,
to the open dismay of a few major quality newspapers such as Segodnya and
Telling it like it is
Few Russian journalists even try to pretend that their reporting is not
influenced by the owner's political agenda. Moscow-based journalist Kirill
Byelyaninov, for example, works for both a Luzhkov television program and a
Berezovsky newspaper. He acknowledges a tacit understanding that certain
subjects are off-limits. "You basically know what's prohibited," he
says. "It's clear to all of us which camp the owner belongs to, and what
information is allowed. I cannot write anything concerning Berezovsky himself,
or his business partners or ventures, and of course I cannot touch the Kremlin.
With Luzhkov, I cannot write about Moscow or the city authorities."
It also works the other way--journalists are encouraged to attack rival barons
by any available means. "I dig up dirt on both," Byelyaninov says.
"If it's dirt on Berezovsky I put it in the program, and if it's dirt on
Luzhkov then it goes in the newspaper."
This willingness to skew coverage is partly a vestige of Soviet times, when
writing to promote a particular official or political line was part of the job.
In the glasnost years of the late eighties and early nineties, Russian
journalists briefly reveled in their ability to express truly independent views.
The 1996 presidential election proved to be a watershed, however, as most media
openly backed the Yeltsin campaign. NTV president Igor Malashenko, notably,
worked simultaneously as Yeltsin's campaign manager. In his own defense,
Malashenko argued that journalists had a duty to support the candidate who
seemed most likely to protect press freedom.
Most observers agree that overwhelmingly sympathetic media coverage played an
important role in Yeltsin's 1996 victory. Blatant media bias also contributed to
the pro-Putin Unity bloc's victory in December's parliamentary elections, and is
likely to help assure Putin's victory on March 26.
The almighty ruble
Naturally, money also plays a role. Politicians pay journalists to push a
particular line, and pay media executives to be invited on political programs.
As a result, the proverb, "He who pays the piper, picks the tune," has
become popular in media circles. "Journalists find themselves in a
situation where either they must serve their master like a dog on its hind legs
begging for a piece of meat, or be without work," says Pavel Gusyev,
chairman of the Union of Journalists and editor of the Luzhkov-controlled daily Moskovsky
Komsomolyets. "There are very few independent publications, and not all
journalists can work for one."
Today, press freedom is increasingly threatened by the government as well as by
the press barons. State pressure on media intensified after Putin became acting
president on December 31, 1999. Since then, the government has stepped up its
censorship of Chechen war coverage and continued subsidizing regional media
outlets in return for their support of government policies.
In January, Putin signed a new law transferring control of government subsidies
for regional newspapers from local politicians to the press ministry. The law
affects 2000 subsidized newspapers across Russia, and will act as a further
mechanism for central government control. This is particularly true in the
hinterland, where papers and broadcast stations are often dependent on local
administrators for everything from floor space to computers. Given that
subscriptions and advertising amount to a small fraction of local media's
operating costs, the subsidies are a crucial tool for influencing media content.
Cash is not the only weapon at Putin's disposal, however. The state controls
printing presses and has the power to issue and revoke broadcast and publishing
licenses. It can also exert pressure by ordering tax inspections, a weapon
frequently used by regional authorities to encourage friendly coverage.
At the national level, the government
maintains unhealthily symbiotic links with leading journalists, many of whom
glide comfortably from press jobs to government positions, and back again. If
anything, this trend has accelerated since Putin took office. In January, NTV
general director Oleg Dobrodeyev, who had helped build the channel's reputation
for balanced, professional news reporting, quit his job to run VGTRA, a vast
conglomerate of fully state-owned television and radio outlets. And Mikhail
Lesin, the head of the Press Ministry (set up last July to regulate all media in
Russia) has had a typically muddy past--a former state television official, he
was one of Yeltsin's top image makers, and is now an apologist for Putin's
scorched-earth media relations policy. Lesin has stated that he disagrees "with
the thesis that the state is more dangerous to the media than the media is to
the state. I believe quite the opposite."
The Chechen military campaign has become Putin's political launching pad. "His
reputation to date has been founded on the bloody war in Chechnya, a fact which
by itself should ring alarm bells," says Yevgeni Kiselyov, the host of
"Itogi," ("Results") a leading political affairs program on
NTV. "Putin is a man of whom we know very little. Many people see him as
too pragmatic, and doubt his fundamental democratic convictions."
These doubts were partly fired by the Putin government's severe restrictions on
independent press coverage of Russian military activities in Chechnya. Coverage
of the current Chechnya campaign has been markedly different from the 1994-96
war, when most media outlets, notably NTV, reported the conflict courageously
and critically. This time around, few local media have opposed or even
challenged the official line. The independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta is
an exception, having devoted many column inches to the dearth of accurate
government information about the war. But there has been little eyewitness
coverage, partly because of the very real risk of being kidnapped by rebel
forces if you travel without Russian military protection.
Andrei Babitsky, a Russian national who works as a correspondent for the U.S.
government-funded Radio Liberty, was one of the few Russian journalists who
chose to flaunt Kremlin restrictions on Chechen war coverage. He traveled
independently through the war zone and sent eyewitness accounts of the impact of
the conflict on ordinary people. In January, Babitsky was arrested by Russian
authorities, beaten, and eventually released, following an international outcry,
after spending more than a month in captivity. He is still under close official
scrutiny, and is barred from leaving Moscow while his case is investigated.
Babitsky challenged the government monopoly of information by reporting from the
Chechen rebel side, which infuriated Russian authorities and led to his
detention. His treatment suggests that journalists who disobey the authorities
can expect to be branded "enemies of the state."
Babitsky notwithstanding, the Kremlin has successfully imposed an information
blackout in Chechnya, particularly on the sensitive issue of Russian military
casualties. By hiding the true casualty figures, the government has been able to
sell the war to its citizens, many of them already terrified by last fall's
apartment bombings in Moscow and elsewhere, which the government blamed on
Acting president Putin also opened a government briefing center dedicated to
eliminating independent journalism about Chechnya. Even before Babitsky's arrest,
the center accused him of "conspiracy with Chechen terrorists,"
setting the stage for the government's insinuation that his coverage was suspect
and ran counter to Russia's national interests.
Policing the Web
Russian Internet service providers are required by law to link their computers
to the FSB, the successor to the KGB. Under an amendment signed into law by
Putin and taking effect from January this year, an additional seven
law-enforcement bodies have been authorized to monitor e-mail and other
electronic traffic. Technically, all these agencies are required to obtain a
warrant before examining private Internet communications, but local human rights
activists suspect they may not always bother with legal formalities. "This
is by definition a violation of the fundamental and constitutional rights of the
citizen," says Yuri Vdovin, deputy chairman of the St Petersburg-based
group Citizens' Watch. The Russian press has been largely silent on this issue.
Russians have good reasons not to trust or respect the press, but they are
nonetheless affected by what they read in the newspapers and watch on television.
As a result, the outcome of elections is greatly influenced by press coverage.
Vladimir Putin has shown himself adept at manipulating public opinion in favor
of his Chechnya campaign. During his first months in office, he has also
demonstrated a desire to exert more control over the lives of the country's
citizens. That makes sense for a man who spent most of his career in the KGB,
but it augurs badly for the future of independent journalism in Russia.