#13 - JRL 7135
April 8, 2003
Out of the Ashes -- Two Noviye Izvestias
By Alexei Pankin
In late March, the U.S. State Department presented its yearly report to Congress on the state of human rights around the world. The report put the Russian Press Ministry on the defensive yet again, leading a spokesman to state glumly: "The Press Ministry treats with sarcasm the [State Department's] attempts to present Russia as a country that lacks freedom of the press." After all, how many times had it been drummed into Press Minister Mikhail Lesin's head that freedom of the press is an absolute value. That it must be defended without compromise. And that principles must never be sacrificed to political expedience.
You may recall that in February 2001, Lesin promised to issue a report on violations of press freedom in the United States. The report was in fact published the following year -- in July, when most everyone in Russia and the rest of the world was on vacation. The United States opted to ignore the report completely. The few U.S. specialists who actually read the report dismissed it as toothless, noting that U.S. and international human rights organizations have criticized the state of freedom of speech and other civil liberties in the United States since 9/11 much more harshly than the Russian government.
In preparing the report, Lesin's hand was clearly guided by political considerations. Russia and the United States were enjoying an historic period of rapprochement at that moment, and Lesin was loathe to put Russia's new partner in an uncomfortable position.
This unprincipled approach did not yield the desired result, as could have been expected. America's mature democracy did not respond in kind to the indulgence shown by Russia's fledgling democracy.
Yet while the Russian Press Ministry was swapping barbs with the State Department, freedom of speech in Russia enjoyed an unqualified success.
About a month and a half ago, Oleg Mitvol caused a major scandal when he closed the Noviye Izvestia newspaper. Staff members contended that the closure had been dictated by the Kremlin in retaliation for Vladimir Pribylovsky's article on the cult of personality surrounding Vladimir Putin. Pribylovsky responded with an op-ed published in The Moscow Times on Feb. 28, "Noviye Izvestia Dead -- Who's Next?"
The sinister Mitvol subsequently handed over the rights to the Noviye Izvestia "brand" to the newspaper's deputy editor, Valery Yakov, a vociferous critic of the closure. Yakov immediately found a backer, entrepreneur Musa Bazhayev. Of Pribylovsky's "fateful" article, Yakov recently told Radio Liberty: "It was nothing out of the ordinary. It could have been published in any newspaper."
The other members of Noviye Izvestia's management team were miffed that rights to the brand were given exclusively to Yakov. They responded by announcing their intention to publish a new daily newspaper, tentatively called Rezonans. They, too, quickly found a backer -- Yakov Soskin, head of the Media-Pressa publishing company. Gagik Karapetyan, a former Noviye Izvestia staffer who made the move to Rezonans, said the new paper had put together a staff list of 111 people. "It seems to me that the [oppositionist] spirit of Noviye Izvestia is powerful enough to sustain two publications and two teams of journalists," Karapetyan said. In the meantime, staffers are attending meetings at both newspapers, trying to sort out where their oppositional spirit will be most generously rewarded.
This is a uniquely Russian instance of press freedom, one that the more developed democracies would be well advised to study.
In Russia, no sooner does a journalist get it into his head to become editor-in-chief than an investor comes running with bags of money. No sooner does one opposition newspaper close than two more open in its place.
Is this not an enviable situation to be in?
Alexei Pankin is the editor of Sreda, a magazine for media professionals (www.sreda-mag.ru)