A Bear's Tale Makes Russian Media's Fur Fly

Business and government use the power of purse to gag the media

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The ties that bind politics, big business, and the press in Russia are uncomfortably tight these days.

One recent tale of just how tight began with a brief hunting trip by Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin in the old style of Soviet officials.

Bulldozers cleared about 1-1/3 miles of road and a helicopter landing pad in the woods of the Yaroslavl region. Squadrons of bodyguards, police, federal security agents, a medical emergency team, a mobile dining room, and professional hunters prepared the way. Dogs flushed two cubs and a she-bear found in their winter cave, and the prime minister himself killed one of the cubs.

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When this story appeared in two Russian weeklies, Mr. Chernomyrdin was not amused. Officials in his office persuaded a Moscow bank to freeze the credit of the offending weeklies, the magazine Ogonyok. They had plenty of clout with the bank, since holding accounts for government ministries is a major source of income for Russian banks.

As a result, an official in the Ogonyok publishing office told the magazine's staff that no salaries could be paid for the next two months.

All because of the bear story.

The magazine's editor, Lev Gushin, was in Davos, Switzerland, at the World Economic Forum. When he got word of the bank's action, he went to see another Russian in Davos, Boris Berezovsky.

Mr. Berezovsky called the bank, and the decision was reversed. After all, he is not only the deputy head of the Russian Security Council, a senior Kremlin post, he is also one of Russia's wealthiest businessmen - with major interests in the auto and energy industries - and a media magnate.

His companies are key owners and sponsors of the main Russian TV channel, which is still 49 percent state-owned, a Moscow daily newspaper, and the weekly magazine Ogonyok.

"He reacted immediately," saying that it was improper to link a published article to a journal's funding, says Mr. Gushin.

This was a close shave for a magazine that expects to live on credit for another year or so before turning a profit, but Gushin says he will publish stories like the bear-hunt piece again.

"I have a long experience from the communist period in publishing articles that leaders don't like," he says. "Then you risked more than losing your funding. You could go to jail."

Such independence is not so common in Russian television these days. The only completely private channel, NTV, made a name for itself with its bold and unblinking coverage of Russia's failures in the Chechen war.

But that was in 1995. In 1996, the station and its owner, banker Vladimir Gusinsky, decided that its priority was to make sure Russian President Boris Yeltsin won re-election. The general manager of the station, in fact, joined the Yeltsin campaign full time.

Now the Walter Kronkite of NTV, Yevgeny Kisselyov, is considered in Moscow political circles to be an unofficial spokesman for the Yeltsin administration.

When an NTV reporter went to interview political analyst Andrei Piontkowsky recently, she told him at the outset that any criticism of Mr. Gusinsky or Mr. Berezovsky would be cut from the tape before she even turned it over to editors, says Mr. Piontkowsky.

"NTV is not going to any lengths to cover the problems of the country," says Yassen Zassoursky, dean of journalism at Moscow State University. Russian television in general has kept to the pro-Yeltsin policy it adopted for last summer's election, he says, and bars direct criticism of the president.

Eventually, this will cost television programs both credibility and audience ratings, says Mr. Zassoursky. But audience measurement is still crude in Russia, so loss of viewers has not yet registered with advertisers.

There are signs, though, that the politicization of the press has cost it some of its public. The Moscow newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda lost 200,000 readers in the weeks before the election run-off last summer - after it endorsed Mr. Yeltsin's campaign, according to editor Valery Semyonov.

The major difference between Russian television channels and newspapers is that the three major television stations are all on the same side, the side of the Yeltsin administration, thanks to the support of major media stakeholders such as Berezovsky and Gusinsky. The newspapers are much more pluralistic, coming from all political directions.

Gusinsky has recently withdrawn from his bank duties to devote all his energies to his media holdings, which include a quality daily newspaper, Sevodnya.

Zassoursky hopes that magnates like Gusinsky are in the media business to make money.

If so, he says, then their drive for larger audiences will push them toward objectivity and political independence. If they see their media empires as tools for political leverage then their broadcast stations and publications will lose credibility and readers, as well as money.

"If the financiers are in the business for money," he says, "then market forces will work to the benefit of media freedom."

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