Russia's dying free press

Valery Popov, the gaunt, snow-haired editor of the Russian newspaper Voronezh Times, pulls his turtleneck up to his chin in his heatless office and regards the day's edition with evident distaste: four pages so thin you could sip borscht through them. There's a full page of television listings, because Russians buy newspapers these days mostly to find out what's on the tube. Only an occasional, small advertisement pokes out of the gray masses of text and posed photos.

"We don't sell advertising," says Mr. Popov sarcastically. "We sell our political influence. Or whatever is left of it."

As the struggle in Moscow over the independent national TV station, NTV, concludes with a takeover by the state-owned gas company, independent news media throughout Russia are suffering their own crises and crucifixions. Since the ruble's sudden devaluation in August 1998, newspaper circulation has plummeted, dailies have become weeklies, and weeklies have bit the dust. TV advertising bases have eroded, profits have disappeared, and staff salaries have stagnated or remained unpaid.

"Now we work only out of journalistic enthusiasm," says Sergei Trushnikov, editor of the Perm Star, a 75-year-old staff-owned daily in the Ural Mountains.

Like a shark sensing blood in the water, federal, regional, and local governing powers - which Russians refer to with one word, vlast - have been doing exactly what Gazprom has done to NTV: move in on the independent media to make sure the nation that lost Marx and Lenin as guiding lights 10 years ago will never find a Jefferson or Pulitzer, much less their own Woodwards and Bernsteins. The aim of the state, bureaucracy, and oligarchic elite is to use the mass media to shape a fake democracy just as the Soviets shaped a fake socialism.

"In Russia, financial tools are more important than legal tools," says Sergei Levitan, a publisher in Perm who recently put his 5-year-old newspaper out of its misery, after losses mounted.

The vlast, explains Mr. Levitan, has a big chest full of financial tools, short of censorship and outright repression, with which to murder the infant Russian free press in its cradle. It can raise the cost of newsprint, an industry still firmly under state control. It can stop the printing presses, also still a state monopoly. It can arrange for the state-monopoly postal service to hike newspaper delivery rates for media that "misbehave." Or tell the state-owned kiosks to stop selling a newspaper that criticizes the government. Or raise the rent of a newspaper or TV station's offices, almost always located in a state-owned building. Or raise utility bills. Or send in the tax authorities. It can pressure advertisers to shun media that speak out.

Russian politicians and oligarchs, whose skins are thinner than the average Russian potato's, also don't hesitate to punish outspoken media in the courts, taking full advantage of the fact that neither judges nor lawyers have a firm grasp on the contradictory laws governing freedom of speech and of the press.

"During last year's election campaign, we published a story comparing our incumbent governor's previous campaign promises to his actual accomplishments in office," said Natalia Sirota, editor of the weekly Liziukova Street Gazette in Voronezh.

"He sued us under the Election Law, which forbids commentary on a candidate during the election campaign. We defended our story under the Media Law, guaranteeing freedom of the press. No one really knew which law was higher. But the judge ruled against us."

Well aware that only the mass media can nourish the Russian people's less-than-confident belief in their right to have their own ideas and express them, the oligarchic state from Moscow to Magadan has used its tools to eliminate the mass media as serious participants in a democratic process. The majority of Russia's 3,000-plus newspapers and TV stations have been recaptured by the state. They exist now as the timid official organs of regional or city administrations or legislative bodies, just as in Soviet days.

Much of the rest of Russia's media have digested the message and turned to "yellow" journalism, publishing vlast-friendly crime-sex-celebrity stuff - along with the inevitable TV listings - just to make money. Some have been gobbled up by Russia's oligarchs, who find it useful to own media to further their business, political, or egomaniacal agendas.

What few molecules of free air still survive in Russia's information space have done so, up till now, through sheer pluck and self-sacrifice. Russian journalists do not lack these qualities. After all, they are Russians and have a millennium of experience with harsh rulers. But they understand all too well for whom the bell tolls in the vlast's move against NTV last week.

As Mr. Popov puts it, "We cut down the poison tree. But the roots remained and are growing back. The main thing now is to prevent a return to totalitarianism."

Jonathan Maslow is a Knight International Press Fellow on a year-long assignment assessing Russian media for the International Center for Journalists in Washington.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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