In Russia, 'space for journalism is narrow'

Critics say Putin's regime stifles dissent in the press.

Viktor Shenderovich is a cheerful but sharp critic of President Vladimir Putin. He savages the Kremlin on his political-satire show at the independent radio station Ekho Moskvi.

For some, Mr. Shenderovich's persistence on Russia's media stage is a sign that press freedom is alive despite widespread allegations of growing state censorship. But Shenderovich, a former superstar of Russian journalism, has a different view. "The space for journalism is narrow, and growing smaller all the time," he says.

Shenderovich was once the chief author of Kukli, a popular 1990s satire TV show, on the independent NTV network. In the show, puppets representing Russian leaders performed politically risque skits.

After coming to power seven years ago, Putin reasserted state control over the three major TV networks and expropriated the property of media moguls Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky, whom he accused of using their assets to wage private information wars.

When Mr. Gusinsky's NTV network was taken over by the state-run gas monopoly Gazprom in 2001, Shenderovich and many other journalists left. "The new management tried to keep the Kukli show going, but to have it lampooning the political opposition rather than the country's leaders," Shenderovich says. "It failed ... because satire that isn't directed at the mighty and arrogant just isn't satire."

On the major channels, where most Russians get information, "there is now pretty much direct censorship," says Alexei Pankin, editor of Media Profi, a magazine for media professionals."

Lately, state control has moved further, as "loyal" tycoons have bought key print-media properties. "When this happens, the publication becomes politically tame. Often the Kremlin decides on the new editors," says Mr. Pankin, who lost his job as an editor of the daily Izvestia last year after Gazprom bought the paper.

"No one is claiming that things are heavenlike in Russia," says Gleb Pavlovsky, a Kremlin adviser. "We have never lived in an absolutely free country, but we have never had as much press freedom as we have today."

In Soviet times, critics like Shenderovich would have emigrated or disappeared. Under Putin, things remain at least partly open. Shenderovich was recently spotted at a Moscow bookstore signing copies of his new political satire, "Processed Cheese."

"These days we feel a bit like someone confined to a madhouse, where we're allowed to shout some truths," he says. "The doctors nod, say thank you, then escort us back to our cells."

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