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How governments bully newspapers

Support for independent world press is going to have to become an exercise in philanthropy.

By Barbara Frye / April 22, 2009


It was a distressing, but hardly surprising, phone call. On the line was a regular contributor to Transitions Online (the magazine I edit for). Still in shock, she was calling to tell me that she had just been put on one month's unpaid leave from her newspaper in Russia.

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She was the only reporter left on staff.

By now, stories of dying newspapers have become familiar to readers in the United States. But whereas in the West the phenomenon is largely a result of declining circulation and competition from online publications, in Russia and elsewhere it has been helped along mightily by governments. (See story, page 10.)

As independent voices fall silent, the world faces yet more places, from Albania to Zimbabwe, where opposition politicians have limited access to media and where dissenting opinions can make themselves heard only through violence or extremism.

Independent, and often critical of the Kremlin, our contributor's newspaper received no lucrative government advertising revenues, and in the financial crisis its advertising from private companies had all but dried up. The paper has since limped back, heavily reliant on wire services, but its future remains in doubt.

As she had written in a recent column for us, "Government officials across Russia have close ties with the business community, and, for any private media enterprise, a clash with powerful people may result in direct financial losses. Russian editors have learned to read the warning signs."

In a report released in January, the National Endowment for Democracy's Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA) examined the apparently growing problem of "soft censorship": governments using their advertising funds, or pressuring private companies to use theirs, to reward sympathetic media and to punish critical outlets.

Our correspondent in Albania, Besar Likmeta, wrote of a carrot-and-stick approach used by that country's government toward the media. The stick: harassment, newly discovered delinquent tax bills, and straightforward fines.

The carrot: "The benefits for compliant media include long, publicly funded advertising campaigns that present government achievements in fighting corruption and in building schools and infrastructure," Mr. Likmeta wrote.

In many of these countries, newspapers have been the only independent voices, so it is mostly print journalism that is being targeted. In Russia, the Kremlin long ago took direct control of some television channels and made sure that others were in friendly hands.

The Internet is hardly a suitable substitute. In many of these countries, its penetration is still negligible. In the most repressive places, websites are blocked or patrons of Internet cafes must provide identification upon entering so that, at best, they will be intimidated into avoiding websites deemed questionable by the government. At worst, they can be tracked down later.

The CIMA report cites an example brought to light in September by Mexico's Center for Journalism and Public Ethics (CEPET):

"CEPET released word that Gov. Mario Marín Torres of Puebla State denied advertising contracts to three online news sites that were critical of his administration and had reported on his alleged connection with a businessman implicated in a pedophile ring. Rodolfo Ruiz Rodríguez, the director of one of the three online newspapers, e-consulta, told CEPET, 'It's absurdly unfair; they provide contracts to media outlets that have no ratings and that cannot provide valid circulation numbers, yet they cut us off because we are critical.' "