#8 - JRL 7238
June 24, 2003
Tuning Out Dissent
Early Sunday morning, President Vladimir Putin's Press Ministry shut down Russia's only remaining independent television station with a national reach -- and replaced it with a sports channel. The decision was perfectly legal, as all of the Russian government's moves to gain control of the press have been. Although TVS had featured a Sunday news program that regularly criticized Mr. Putin, the Press Ministry cited the station's financial and management problems as reasons for the closure. Those problems were real enough -- but other media outlets might well be bankrupt too if they were not subsidized, overtly or covertly, by the government.
This isn't censorship, exactly, but it might as well be: The result is that all Russian television channels are now under federal control and that there are no more outlets for independent broadcast journalists. Many members of the editorial staff of TVS had worked at NTV, another station once critical of the government that also had "financial and management problems" and was taken over by Gazprom, Russia's largest company -- and a big supporter of Mr. Putin -- in 2001. Much of the team then went to TV6, which was shut down last year, and then landed at TVS.
Now there are signs that censorship may become more overt. Last week the Duma, the lower house of parliament, voted overwhelmingly in favor of a bill that would let authorities penalize and ultimately shutter news organizations considered biased in their coverage. If the Russian president signs the bill, it could signal the end of the current era, in which he has used tax laws, subsidies and corruption charges to limit criticism, and the opening of a new era in which he uses more overt methods.
True, Russian media outlets do need to learn the lesson exemplified by American press entrepreneurs from Benjamin Franklin onward: that an enterprise must be financially successful in order to withstand the pressures of both the market and the government. But they also must be given a shot at real democracy, unimpeded by the government's heavy-handed meddling.