After Russian coal mine disaster, questions about TV censorship

Miner protests forced the government to grapple with a Russian coal mine disaster in western Siberia, say critics. But the protests were ignored by the country's dominant government-owned and government-linked TV networks.

By , Correspondent

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    Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin addressing a commission investigating the Raspadskaya coal mine disaster in a nationally broadcast video link from the government headquarters in Moscow, last week.
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Criticism of Russia's three big state-guided TV networks is swelling over their alleged failure to offer objective coverage of one of Russia's coal mine disaster earlier this month. Largely ignored were miners' protests put down by riot police and complaints by survivors of poor pay, arduous working conditions, and lax safety standards.

The twin methane explosions that virtually destroyed Russia's largest coal mine two weeks ago in western Siberia were were among the country's worst mining tragedies and killed at least 67, with 23 still missing.

Most Russians learned about the accident at the Raspadskaya mine from one of the three big nationwide TV channels, all of which are either state-run or controlled by Kremlin-friendly business interests. A week later, viewers saw Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin hold a familiarly theatrical press conference to reprimand local officials and urge Raspadskaya's director to resign -- which he immediately did.

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But only those Russians with an Internet connection or access to the dwindling number of independent newspapers really knew what had brought Mr. Putin to Mezhdurechensk, the grim Siberian mining town where the tragedy occurred: On the night of May 15 at least 300 miners and supporters in Mezhdurechensk blocked a key railway line to protest what they called an inadequate and uncaring response to the tragedy by the government.

When riot police moved in, protesters began throwing stones and bottles. At least 28 protesters were arrested. Regional governor Aman Tuleyev blamed "drunk young people" for stirring up trouble while Mezhdurechensk mayor Sergei Shcherbakov said more railway closures wouldn't be tolerated.

Raspadskaya miner Sergei Krasilnikov, reached by telephone in Mezhdurechensk on Tuesday, says locals are bitter about the lack of coverage in the national media. "It suits the authorities to hush things up, and wait for passions to calm down," Mr. Krasilnikov says. "But [the protests] began precisely because there was no information about the accident.... No one knew what was actually going on. Neither the president nor the prime minister reacted at first. No day of mourning was declared. It seemed to us that when we die, nobody cares."

National TV blindfolded

Many analysts say the protests finally spurred the Kremlin to act, but neither the rallies nor the miners' allegations of negligence by the mine owners ever made it on national TV.

"What does the television viewer know about the events in Mezhdurechensk?" the independent Moscow daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta asked in toughly-worded editorial. "He knows that at the Raspadskaya mine two explosions occurred... But It is very probable that the television viewer has heard nothing about the blocking of the railroad by the miners... or if he has heard, then he has heard only about some supposedly organized actions of criminals.”

The editorial concluded: "The majority of Russians... do not have full information about the central event of the week. They cannot draw independent and objective conclusions" as a result.

A survey released this week by the state-run Russian Public Opinion Study Center reported that TV is the primary new source for more than two-thirds of Russians. Just 20 percent of respondents said they read newspapers and magazines, 15 percent used the Internet and 12 percent listened to the radio.

With the partial exception of the tiny independent Ren TV network "There is no objective information about miners' working conditions or protest moods on national TV," says Mikhail Melnikov at the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, a Moscow-based monitoring group. "It's clear that this is done to lower protest moods and pretend that the authorities and mine owners have things under control... but there are still a few other sources, and people who want to find information can still do so."

Young, restless, better informed

Boris Kagarlitsky, a longtime labor activist and director of the independent Institute for Globalization and Social Movements, argues that Soviet-style control of TV news is not working as the Kremlin intends.

"I think the media blackout [on Mezhdurechensk events] has failed miserably, and that's why Putin had to rush to the scene," Mr. Kagarlitsky says. "Control of TV news is still effective with older, loyal people, but the more active, youthful part of the population gets more of its news from other sources. Information spreads through the old-fashioned route of rumors, and is greatly magnified by the Internet. You can't stop that.... It's clear that the authorities are really afraid of civil unrest and, ironically, their overreactions are actually provoking more unrest."

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