Russia's Free Press Opts Not To Play Fair Before Elections


'Gennady Zyujanov, Communist presidential hopeful, recently made public his shadow cabinet - so shadowy as to be positively spectral. Enough to make one's flesh crawl."

Welcome to campaign press coverage 1996, Russian style. Balanced it's not.

Not all newspapers are quite so vehement in their anti-Communism as Moscow News, whose report on Mr. Zyuganov's potential government was so blunt. But as Russia's presidential elections approach on June 16, every major medium in the country has taken sides, and all pretense at objectivity has gone out of the window.

"Our job is to explain to readers ... how to get out of the crisis the country is in after five years of [President Boris] Yeltsin," explains Alexei Ilyin, the editor of Pravda, which is backing Zyuganov.

A free press does not mean a fair press, says Yasen Zasursky, dean of Moscow University's journalism school. "The old heritage of partisanship is still there," he says.

The evidence is clear. Over three weeks of campaign coverage analyzed in late March by Moscow-based sociologist Boris Grushin, not a single one of Pravda's 56 stories about Mr. Yeltsin reflected well on the president. Likewise, none of the 16 stories about Zyuganov in Izvestiya, a liberal pro-Yeltsin daily, had anything positive to say.

The beneficiary of this polarization is President Yeltsin. The overwhelming majority of Russian media are anti-Communist, and even papers that have generally been critical of government policy are swallowing their tongues in the run-up to the election.

"Naturally the people who work here are democrats and that influences their stories," says Igor Golembyovsky, the editor of Izvestiya.

"There is a political struggle going on here that peaks on June 16, and it is not like the West, where there is no danger of democracy being destroyed," he adds.

Yeltsin gets big on small screen

Most strikingly, the three major television stations, which analysts suggest have the broadest impact on voters, are in lockstep with Yeltsin's reelection effort.

This is perhaps unsurprising in the case of ORT, of which the government is majority shareholder, or of RTR, wholly owned by the government. But even NTV, whose initials signify "Independent Television" and which has long been a thorn in Yeltsin's side, has joined the chorus. NTV director general Igor Malashenko is a member of the president's reelection committee, in charge of image.

Other media big shots are playing a personal role on the president's behalf, although in a less public way. The publisher of the business daily Komersant, Vladimir Yakovlev, is said to be coordinating regional press coverage, and Mr. Golembyovsky says Yeltsin has invited him to dinner and asked for advice.

'Primitive' press

Communist leader Zyuganov has a hard time matching this sort of media clout.

Among national papers, only two support him: Pravda, formerly the official organ of the Soviet Communist Party's Central Committee, and Soviet Russia, although they are just as one-sided as the "democratic" press.

"The press has aligned itself primitively into two camps," acknowledges Mr. Ilyin, the Pravda editor. "It is not interesting to read any more."

Indeed, one of the most striking aspects of campaign coverage is that only Yeltsin and Zyuganov get face time with the media. Other candidates, such as radical nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, liberal reformist Grigory Yavlinsky, or Gen. Alexander Lebed, are almost entirely ignored by the national media.

The Communists at least stand a somewhat better chance against Yeltsin in Russia's vast hinterland, where local papers and television stations depend heavily on local government officials for everything from subsidies to broadcast licenses.

Where Communists run the administration, Zyuganov's campaign enjoys a publicity boost. But most local governments are in the hands of pro-Yeltsin forces, and they are not shy about using their influence, according to Alexei Frolov, a researcher who follows the regional press.

Using their monopoly control over supplies, regional bosses are keeping editors on a short leash, he says.

"When you control newsprint and ink, you generally control what is printed," he points out.

Subsidies' spin on coverage

In Tyumen, for example, an oil and gas rich region in western Siberia, the largest local newspaper Tyumenskaya Pravda relies on a subsidy from the pro-Yeltsin local government for 25 percent of its budget.

That money has not yet been disbursed. According to local press sources, payment appears to have been delayed because the paper has begun demanding that the government pay pensions on time - a key Communist campaign promise.

Whether, in the end, all this partisanship in the press makes a decisive difference to the way Russians will vote next June 16 is a matter of debate.

Believing what they read

Certainly the influence of the Moscow papers has weakened in recent years. Izvestiya used to print 11.5 million copies each day - now it sells 650,000. And it is not clear that Russians respect what they read in the papers in the same way that they used to in Soviet days, when they had few other sources of information.

Nor is control over national television an invincible weapon, despite the medium's nationwide reach and immediate impact, argues Professor Zasursky of Moscow University's Journalism School.

During last December's parliamentary elections, he points out, ORT and RTR clearly favored Our Home is Russia, the party led by Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. That did not prevent the Communists from outpolling the official party by more than 2 to 1.

Keeping Zyuganov off Russian TV screens, Zasursky says, "may or may not be bad for Zyuganov," who depends much more on face-to-face meetings with voters than on media campaigns.

"But it is certainly bad for democracy. The danger of manipulation is still there from the government side, and it is counterproductive," he adds.

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