Media learn lesson from Moscow: Don't criticize

In Russia's heartland, journalists worry about press freedoms, which hinge on support of local leaders.

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A Kremlin-backed purge of independent media voices in Moscow is just a distant rumbling in Russia's heartland, where most journalists have learned to watch what they say about those in power.

So, it's surprising that Samara, a sprawling, industrial city on the Volga River 600 miles east of Moscow, has several privately owned papers as well as a major TV station. Many journalists here say they have no fear of the kind of clampdown taking place in the capital, which some characterize as as Moscow politics-as-usual. On the other hand, a quick survey of local media reveals none of the kind of tough criticism that recently got the NTV network and two Moscow-based sister publications silenced by a Kremlin-backed push.

At Samarskaya Izvestia, the region's largest-circulation daily, staff say they are free to write, but wouldn't "spit in the well" by offending the local governor or the oil company that owns their paper. "The Russian people elected Vladimir Putin as president," says deputy editor Gennady Subotin. "It was completely wrong of NTV to continue criticizing the authorities after the people had spoken like that."

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This attitude is rooted deep in Russia's political culture, says Denis Popov, a reporter with another daily, Volskaya Zarya. "People think democracy means the majority is right, and holding other viewpoints is therefore wrong," he says. "Putin has made it easy for journalists, because they can just go on autopilot."

Samara is far from the worst case among Russia's 89 provinces, where governors often rule like satraps. "There are 89 different political regimes in Russia," says Igor Yakovenko, secretary of the Russian Union of Journalists. "Some of them are harsh dictatorships that crush press freedom, others have leaders that let some pluralism exist. But the signal coming out of Moscow today is telling regional authorities they can deal with the media as they like."

The governor here is Konstantin Titov, a dynamic, liberal-minded politician who ran in last year's presidential election and recently teamed up with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to create a new national-scale social democratic party. By most accounts, Mr. Titov treats the local media with kid gloves, and he scoffs at the idea that basic rights are under the gun. "I don't feel any threat to freedom of speech," says Titov. "I ran for president last year, and no one tried to limit my activity. I have since developed a very close working relationship with President Putin, and there are no problems."

But the Union of Journalists and human rights groups in Moscow warn that media independence is very much endangered in many parts of the country. In Ulyanovsk, next door to Samara, the entire staff of the only private TV station was fired earlier this year and replaced with loyalists of the local governor. Journalists have been jailed, beaten, even killed for criticizing local authorities in some places. "What happened to NTV has attracted a lot of attention, but in the provinces they have been quietly enduring this sort of treatment for years," says Boris Timoshenko, a regional press monitor with the Glasnost Foundation, an independent media watchdog.

In Samara, there is gnawing awareness that the relative freedom could be temporary. "We don't have major problems with official pressure ... but it's mainly because Titov is an open and modern politician," says Yelena Orlova, news manager of SKAT-TV, the region's biggest private broadcaster. "The key problem across this country is that we depend on the goodwill of the men in power for our freedoms rather than firmly established rights."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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