Hopes for Democracy Flicker In Russia With Assault on Press

''LADISLAV LISTYEV is killed.''

That was the stark message across Russian television screens yesterday, printed beneath a picture of Mr. Listyev in his trademark Larry King suspenders, as every Moscow station scrapped entertainment programs in memory of the murdered TV star.

And with Listyev, whose mafia-style murder on Wednesday night has shocked the country, died another little flicker of the hope that Russia was becoming a democratic country taking its place on the world stage, his colleagues lamented.

''This murder speaks of the moral crisis afflicting Russia,'' said Oleg Poptsov, head of Russian TV, a state-owned channel. ''The question arises of who rules this country.''

Listyev was due to become executive director of a new-look version of Russia's main television station to be launched in April, when the government-owned Ostankino channel will be relaunched as the partly privatized Public Russian Television.

In a country where gangland killings are a regular occurrence, his death is among the most stunning.

His colleagues in the nascent station say Listyev's plans for the station must have angered powerful business interests. ''We regard this murder as a challenge to the whole of Russian society by the mafia beast,'' directors of Public Russian Television said in a statement.

Freedom in name only

The Russian news media have enjoyed formal freedoms for nearly five years now, since the collapse of the Soviet Union. As coverage of the war in Chechnya shows, neither newspapers nor independent television are afraid of criticizing the government.

But in Russia today, the media must operate ''in a context of complete lack of respect for journalists,'' says Peter Klebnikov, co-director of the Russian-American Press Center here.

''Every journalist knows that he can pay the price any time for exercising his freedom of speech,'' added Oleg Panfilov of the Glasnost Defense Fund.

That was made gruesomely clear last October when a young journalist, Dmitri Kholodov, was killed when a bomb blew up in a suitcase he had been told contained documents proving corruption in the Army.

Twenty journalists were killed in the former Soviet Union last year, according to Mr. Panfilov, but nobody has yet been brought to trial for any of the deaths.

When he was shot dead on Wednesday as he returned to his apartment, Litsyev was planning the launch of a station that will be one of the world's largest -- with more than 200 million viewers.

Although the state is expected to retain a 51 percent share of the station, the rest is to be divided up among 12 other shareholders, according to a presidential decree last November. Their identity, and the value of their holdings, has yet to be announced.

But the shakeup has attracted huge financial and political interests, not least because of television's massive influence on voters as Russia prepares for parliamentary elections next December, and a presidential poll next year.

Listyev's murder, said Vsevolod Bogdanov, the head of the Russian Journalists' Union, was a result of ''a struggle among political parties and financial groups for power and money.''

The mafia connection

Especially contentious was Listyev's reported intent to reform advertising sales at Ostankino. Ostankino insiders say a few mafia-controlled firms buy up all the advertising time, selling it on to smaller agencies for inflated prices. Ostankino announced last month that it would halt all advertising soon -- apparently in a bid to reorganize existing sales contracts. ''Vladislav wanted to purge all the filth that is sticking to this channel, and he was punished for that,'' said Eduard Sogolayev, one of Listyev's fellow pioneers in post-Soviet television.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin, in an impromptu visit to Ostankino headquarters yesterday, said he was shocked by Listyev's murder and sacked Moscow's police chief and prosecutor.

''I bow my head as a man who has not done enough to fight banditry, corruption, bribery, and crime,'' he said.

Those contrite words, however, did little to assuage the anger of Listyev's journalist colleagues, gathered at a meeting in his memory yesterday. They accused the government of doing nothing to rein in powerful Russian criminals, and even of being in league with them.

''We trusted the government for a long time,'' said Alla Yaroshinskaya, a journalist who sits on one of Mr. Yeltsin's advisory panels. ''But it has done nothing to investigate real crime, or to stem it. We in the press are the only democratic institution left in the country, and we have to bring the authorities to their senses -- no other power can do that,'' she argued.

Shod Muladjanov, editor of Moscovskaya Pravda, was even blunter. ''We are in a fight against the gangs, and they have their hand on us wherever they are, in the Kremlin, in the government, in the television,'' he said angrily.

''We are being shot or bought off so that we stop being an obstacle to a new dictatorship,'' he charged. ''And no law enforcement body in the country protects our rights.''

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