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Financial Times (UK)
January 3, 2003
Fear and Kremlin hints turn reporters into Putin's poodles: The Russian media are crippled by self-censorship
By Andrew Jack

Vladimir Putin yesterday headed to the Urals city of Magnetigorsk for a skiing holiday, but that did not stop ORT, Russia's most popular television channel, making his arrival the lead item on its evening news.

The broadcast was no anomaly. No matter where the Russian president goes - even if it is just to his Kremlin office - ORT's cameras are among those present to provide doting coverage.

If that echoes a Soviet-style approach to the country's leadership, it is also a striking contrast with the more aggressive news coverage for much of the 1990s, when ORT was controlled by Boris Berezovsky, the now exiled politician and businessman. Three years since Mr Putin was propelled towards the presidency by his nomination as prime minister in August 1999, and with thoughts turning to the electoral cycle in the next 12 months, the Russian media have experienced a transformation that does not bode well for fostering greater freedom of speech.

The president intervened a few weeks ago to veto a new law that would have imposed tough restrictions on reporting terrorist incidents after October's Moscow theatre siege. But it seems likely that a revised version of the legislation will be implemented.

While the Russian media remain far more feisty and critical than under Communism, signals from the Kremlin and reflexes from journalists are combining to hinder the development of a free media. The result is a brake on the greater shift towards western-style democracy.

"It is amazing how quickly the gains of the Yeltsin era have been forgotten," laments one broadcaster.

The first warning shots were fired by Mr Putin after the Kursk submarine tragedy in August 2000, when he criticised aggressive media coverage of the navy's botched rescue operation and his own decision to continue with a holiday on the Black Sea.

Within months, through a mixture of threats and legal action, Mr Berezovsky sold his stake in ORT and lost control of the smaller rival TV6 channel. Vladimir Gusinsky, a rival, lost control of his Media Most empire, which included the influential daily newspaper Sevodnya and the weekly magazine Itogi, as well as the television network NTV. Both men fled into exile abroad.

Neither could claim to champion independent or objective media. They used their outlets for their own political and commercial interests. But they also - notably in the case of Mr Gusinsky - created a new level of professionalism, established a diversity of ownership and offered outlets for critical opinions.

"Putin's overall view remains as it was two years ago," says Alexei Venediktov, head of the Echo Mosvky radio station, another part of Mr Gusinsky's empire which has maintained a precarious autonomy. "He sees the media as someone's instrument. He looks at them as an industry, not a societal institution."

The Kremlin holds regular meetings with Russian editors which some see as efforts to co-opt them.

Mr Venediktov says that under Mr Putin, 147 laws have been passed with clauses referring to the mass media.

"Even the new law on the use of the Russian language means in theory that, if a broadcaster mispronounces a word, the station could be taken off the air."

Oleg Panfilov, head of the Centre for Journalism in Extreme Situations, a media watchdog, says: "There have been more legal cases opened against journalists in the two and half years of Mr Putin's rule than throughout the 1990s under Boris Yeltsin."

The result has been a re-awakening of journalistic self-censorship. That has been reflected in the muted media coverage of the conflict in the breakaway republic of Chechnya, which claims victims almost daily but rarely makes the front pages or evening news broadcasts.

Alexei Simonov, head of the Glasnost Defence Foundation watchdog, says: "The idea of self-censorship is a long-running one in Russia.

"We thought that the guard inside each journalist's head had left his post and gone away. Now we have found out that he was just asleep and is waking up."

Vladimir Gurevich, editor of the newspaper Vremiya Novostei, says: "The threat of closure has made editors more careful." But he adds - reflecting a widespread view - that parts of the media still enjoy too much liberty, showing tasteless television pictures of corpses, writing "irresponsible" stories, and proving sensationalist during the coverage of the Moscow theatre hostage crisis.

Mr Venediktov admits he has imposed a degree of self-censorship on his radio station. He says that in a poll after the theatre siege most of its listeners - who tend to be more western-oriented and educated than the average - supported restrictions on civil liberties in the fight against terrorism.

Russia's people might gain from more critical media in the forthcoming political season, but seem unlikely to get, or support, rebellious journalists. Mr Putin may benefit in the short term. The Russian public stands to lose in the long run.

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