Russian reporters, take note: self-censorship in the offing

Public reaction weakens this week with latest hits against independent media.

If victory at war requires knocking down one opponent after another, then the Kremlin's clean sweep against three independent media voices this week has largely cleared the battlefield.

The take-no-prisoners clampdown on Itogi magazine and Sevodnya newspaper on Tuesday, just after the weekend takeover of NTV - Russia's last independent television station, which once reached an estimated 60 percent of the country's TV sets - has left journalists reeling.

But while results are most severe for the independent journalists now scrambling to find or create new outlets, analysts say that President Vladimir Putin's strategy of reining in critical press is meant to resonate across the Russian media.

The blows are undermining the Media-Most empire of oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky, which has been a consistent critic of Kremlin corruption and Russia's wars in Chechnya, and which Russian prosecutors say has debts up to $800 million.

A sizable chunk of that is owed to the state-connected gas monopoly Gazprom, which called in its debt by taking control over the media outlets, appointing new management teams, and forcing many journalists to resign or renegotiate their contracts.

Dual American-Russian citizen Boris Jordan, NTV's new chief, has promised press freedom - but insisted that all reports be cleared through him.

"They are taking Stalin's view, that if the enemy doesn't surrender, he must be completely annihilated," says Sergei Strokan, foreign editor of Itogi, as he packs up his office. "I don't think the people who are doing this will stop until this is completely screwed down."

Financial reasons used to justify the NTV "coup," and the changes at Sevodnya - which lost $3 million last year - Mr. Strokan says, don't apply to Itogi, which turns a small profit and is published in cooperation with the US magazine Newsweek. Pending resolution of the crisis, Newsweek announced it had suspended ties with Itogi.

"Can there be any logic to it?" Strokan asks. "This brand [of independent journalism] doesn't exist without us. They are replacing merit with loyalty. It will be a disaster."

Turbulence has taken a toll on former NTV journalists, who are trying to export their critical eye to other stations. A radio edition of Itogi will be broadcast on Ekho Moskvy, NTV's sister radio station that, its editors fear, may be next in Gazprom's crosshairs. Some Russian newspapers are making space in their pages for Sevodnya writers.

An overnight takeover left Itogi journalists locked out - and told that new "staff cuts" applied to all of them. Sevodnya journalists were told 1-1/2 hours before press time that Tuesday's edition would not be printed.

But reverberations of the latest events are likely to impact Russia's entire media scene.

"Finances have nothing to do with it," says Alexei Simonov, head of the Foundation of Glasnost [Freedom of Speech] Protection in Moscow, who notes that no other indebted TV channels have been called to account. "In Russia all acts of state power are demonstrative, and this is a message to all Russian journalists. It does not mean that the Kremlin is going to crack down on freedom of speech. The newspapers will do it themselves."

That analysis may be reinforced by timing. Sevodnya's publisher, for example, had previously said the paper might be shut down by May 1, and the paper "would have died quietly" with no intervention, notes Sergei Ivanenko, an opposition member of the Information Committee in the Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament.

"It was obvious, but still the executive power preferred to use the force to intimidate the other journalists," he says. "This is the beginning of a massive crackdown on the freedom of speech in Russia. The aim of the Kremlin is to block the access to independent information."

Old Soviet-style police methods of control have simply given way to "economic strangulation," Mr. Ivanenko adds. "If Gazprom was interested in financial aspects, it would never have destroyed NTV, because its value fell radically after it was abandoned by its best journalists."

The tug of war is also playing out in Spain, where a court on Wednesday refused to extradite Mr. Gusinsky, who has been held since December on a Russian arrest warrant. While criticizing the oligarch's business dealings and claims of political persecution, the court said his media empire had been subject to "questionable circumstances and peculiarities."

US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Wednesday that Russian tactics of "political pressure and intimidation" had "put in jeopardy" press freedoms gained in the decade since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Of greater surprise to the independent journalists, however, has been the lack of popular support at the critical moment. Thousands demonstrated in favor of NTV, twice in Moscow and once in St. Petersburg, prior to the crackdown.

But during the latest events "nobody came," says Masha Lipman, deputy editor of Itogi. "It means the energy of protest has faded away. I'm afraid there is only a small demand in Russia for press freedom."

Monitor researcher Marina Lemoutkina in Moscow contributed to this report.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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