#12 - JRL 7014
RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly
Vol. 3, No. 2, 11 January 2003
2002: A QUIETLY BAD YEAR FOR THE RUSSIAN MEDIA
By Laura Belin
No big scandal dominated the Russian media landscape during 2002. Neither President Vladimir Putin nor senior government officials enacted sweeping changes in media policy. Nevertheless, media trends established during the previous two years quietly continued to bear fruit for the president.
Putin and other senior officials, notably Media Minister Mikhail Lesin and Procurator-General Vladimir Ustinov, appeared on "enemies lists" published by several journalists' organizations in Russia and abroad during 2000 and 2001. Putin's media strategy last year appeared calculated to deflect charges that the president is an enemy of press freedom. He made no grand gestures in support of further restrictions on the flow of information, as he had done when signing the Information Security Doctrine in 2000.
On the contrary, in November 2002 Putin vetoed amendments to Russian media law relating to coverage of antiterrorist operations. Watchdog groups and some prominent media managers had assailed the amendments, but few expected Putin to veto the measure given his harsh assessment of the way some media covered the October hostage crisis in Moscow. However, in an official statement, the president said the proposed amendments would not only "fail to make the fight against terrorism more effective, but may also create preconditions for imposing unjustified restrictions on citizens' rights to information."
Putin also handed the print media a surprise New Year's gift on 3 January, when he signed a law adopted during the last week in December to extend a discount on the value-added tax rate for goods and services related to the production and distribution of newspapers, periodicals, and books. That tax break had been scheduled to expire at the beginning of 2003 but will now remain in effect until 1 January 2005.
Like Putin, Media Minister Lesin seemed to cultivate a more conciliatory, journalist-friendly image in 2002. A powerful figure both by virtue of his office (the Media Ministry enforces numerous laws and regulations) and his business connections (the Video-International agency, which Lesin co-founded, dominates the Russian television advertising market), Lesin had figured in several scandals early in Putin's presidency. For instance, in 2000 he signed off on the infamous "protocol number 6" promising that criminal charges against Vladimir Gusinskii would be dropped if Gusinskii sold a controlling stake in his media properties to shareholder Gazprom. Lesin drew sharp criticism again in January 2002, when his ministry pulled the plug on TV-6 broadcasts and temporarily awarded the network's frequency to a sports channel, although its legal authority to do so was unclear.
However, Lesin avoided direct involvement in any major licensing controversy during the remainder of 2002. In February the commission that awards broadcast licenses, dominated by bureaucrats from the Media Ministry and other state bodies, awarded a radio frequency to a group led by Ekho Moskvy journalists. In March, the same commission awarded the Channel 6 frequency to a consortium including leading TV-6 journalists, who had lost their jobs when TV-6 went off the air.
In 2000 and 2001, the Media Ministry applied the media law and the law on terrorism to issue official warnings to media outlets that interviewed leading Chechen officials. But in November 2002, as parliament was rushing through new restrictions on covering antiterrorist operations, Lesin advocated self-regulation by the media as opposed to granting state officials more powers to control media coverage. Lesin even backed media executives who urged Putin to veto the measures passed by parliament.
So the good news for the Russian media in 2002 was that Putin and Lesin adopted a less antagonistic posture toward the journalistic community. Unfortunately, neither the president nor senior government officials took any steps to lift restrictions on news gathering or alleviate forms of pressure which have helped reduced media pluralism since Putin took office. Five major factors helped perpetuate relatively timid news coverage throughout 2002:
1. Controlled Access. It's hard to report the news without going to the places where newsworthy events are happening. Yet news gathering in and around Chechnya remained difficult in 2002 for journalists who sought to avoid constant supervision in military press pools. Although it is not unusual for military officials to restrict journalists' movements in war zones, Russian authorities have sought to limit journalists' visits to any part of Chechnya and even to displaced-person camps outside the republic. Although the current "antiterrorist operation" in Chechnya has entered its fourth year, and the Russian armed forces continue to suffer significant casualties, the debate over the military strategy in the Russian media has been relatively subdued.
Politicians' access to the television networks that reach the largest audience also remains tightly (if informally) controlled. Critics of Putin's administration who often disagree with each other --such as Communist Party leader Gennadii Zyuganov, Yabloko leader Grigorii Yavlinskii, and Union of Rightist Forces leader Boris Nemtsov -- all complained during 2002 that the Kremlin controls editorial decisions at state-owned television networks and uses that power to shut out opposition voices on news and analysis programs.
2. Criminal Investigations. Criminal probes became an important part of state media policy in 2000 and 2001, affecting little-known journalists as well as the high-profile efforts to crush the media empires of Boris Berezovskii and Vladimir Gusinskii. In fact, Oleg Panfilov, who monitored infringements on press freedom during the 1990s for the Glasnost Defense Foundation and currently heads the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, was quoted in the 3 January edition of the "Financial Times" as saying that "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."
To cite just a few examples, the Moscow Prosecutor's Office summoned an editor of "Nezavisimaya gazeta" in March 2002 to face questioning in connection with a criminal libel investigation. Federal Security Service (FSB) officers raided the offices of the Moscow-based weekly "Versiya" in November, confiscating computer equipment. Several staffers were called in for questioning in connection with a story published about sites formerly used for secret establishments, although the editor of "Versiya" said all of the information for that story came from open sources. The same month, FSB officers in Perm and Petrazavodsk raided the offices of newspapers that had published sensational allegations about corruption. Though it is hard to measure the chilling effect a criminal investigation has on news reporting, it reminds journalists that they are being watched closely, even when the journalists under investigation are never formally charged or prosecuted.
3. The Court System. Many courts handed down rulings against journalists or media outlets during 2002. In January, as the LUKoil-Garant pension fund was trying to force TV-6 into liquidation, the Supreme Arbitration Court ruled in favor of the pension fund (a minority shareholder in the television network). Lesin then cited that court ruling as justification for shutting down TV-6 broadcasts. In February, "Novaya gazeta" was hit with two huge libel judgments totaling $1.5 million, which threatened to put the biweekly out of business. The military collegium of the Supreme Court in June 2002 confirmed a four-year prison sentence for journalist Grigorii Pasko, who was convicted of treason in December 2001.
No smoking gun tied Kremlin or government officials to any of those court rulings. However, the losing parties were all out of favor with the authorities, and many political observers and legal experts argued that the cases were influenced by the political climate. The Supreme Arbitration Court intervened with unusual speed to hear the TV-6 case. Russian courts normally award damages for libel equivalent to hundreds or thousands of dollars, fueling speculation that "Novaya gazeta" was being punished for its antiwar editorial policy and coverage of high-level corruption. The Pasko ruling was surprising in light of the fact that the Supreme Court had amnestied Pasko in 1999 after he was convicted of passing information to Japanese television journalists about the Russian Pacific Fleet's disposal of nuclear waste. Moreover, the Supreme Court's military collegium had in February 2002 struck down a Soviet-era rule on state secrets that was used to secure Pasko's treason conviction.
4. Media Owners and Shareholders. At the level of rhetoric, Kremlin and government officials abhor the limitations on press freedom imposed by wealthy financial backers. For instance, Media Minister Lesin acknowledged in February 2002 that threats to media freedom exist in Russia, but claimed that private owners are the main culprits. Similarly, Putin told journalists in April that the media "should not directly depend on" wealthy owners, who provide only "false independence."
In reality, business interests helped dispatch media outlets that were critical of the authorities in 2002. A pension fund affiliated with the powerful oil company LUKoil filed the lawsuit that doomed TV-6 last year, even though the network's finances were improving and neither the oil company nor the pension fund stood to gain financially from forcing the network into liquidation. St. Petersburg businessman Vyacheslav Leibman purchased the weekly "Obshchaya gazeta" in May 2002 for $3 million. He promptly fired the entire staff and suspended publication, a rather strange course if he had been seeking a financial return on his investment.
After Berezovskii and Gusinskii lost control over several influential media outlets and fled Russia to avoid criminal prosecution, it is easy to see why media investors would conclude that the road to success lies in good relations with the Kremlin. But perhaps more striking, some Russian journalists demonstrated in 2002 that they had learned the value of working with business interests on good terms with Putin's administration. NTV staffers had protested on the air during the late stages of that network's conflict with Gazprom in 2001. Many of those people lost their jobs again when TV-6 was forced out of business last year. However, instead of staging protests, a group of journalists led by Yevgenii Kiselev forged an alliance with politicians and businessmen. Their Media-Sotsium consortium subsequently won the auction for the Channel 6 frequency.
5. Self-Censorship. The "internal censor" never disappeared from Russian journalism during the 1990s, but by common consent the phenomenon became much more widespread in 2000 and 2001, and that trend continued last year. In fact, the day after the Media-Sotsium consortium won the tender for Channel 6, the consortium's main political patron, former Foreign Minister and Premier Yevgenii Primakov, openly endorsed the idea of "internal censorship" at the network. It is hard to identify specific cases of self-censorship, because one cannot analyze stories that are not reported and angles that are not explored. However, there were some signs of institutionalized self-censorship in 2002. For instance, a group of prominent managers who work for state-controlled media or are sympathetic to Putin's administration formed a Media Industrial Committee, which is drafting a new law on the mass media as well as self-regulatory guidelines for journalists covering crises such as terrorist actions. The committee is working with state security officials on those guidelines.
In addition, editors of some privately owned media attend regular meetings in the Kremlin. Similar meetings occurred during Yeltsin's first term as president. But Vyacheslav Kostikov, who was Yeltsin's spokesman in the early 1990s, wrote in his memoirs that many prominent editors stopped attending those sessions soon after the first war in Chechnya began. The current war in Chechnya has not prompted a similar show of dissent.
Although Putin cannot be tied directly to many methods routinely used to intimidate Russian journalists (or to exert pressure on those who remain defiant), presidential aide Sergei Yastrzhembskii revealed in October 2002 how pleased Kremlin officials are with the current state of media affairs. Speaking at a seminar in Yekaterinburg, Yastrzhembskii noted with satisfaction the demise of an "orgy of free speech," which allegedly prevailed before Putin came to power. Relations between the authorities and the media have vastly improved since Putin took office, Yastrzhembskii asserted, in part because state officials "started to show some political will." With a new parliamentary and presidential election cycle set to begin later this year, that political will is likely to remain in place during 2003.
Laura Belin has written extensively on Russian media issues since 1995.