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#6 - JRL 7256
Time Europe
July 18, 2003
The News: It's All Good
Russian news programmes have a disturbingly familiar tone

One of my favorite Soviet-era jokes had Hitler watching a Russian military parade, and Napoleon reading Pravda, the Communist Party organ. Hitler's response: "If only I had such missiles, I'd have won the war!" Napoleon's: "If I had such a press, the world would never have heard of Waterloo."

I recalled that joke last night as I was watching Vremya (Time), the primetime newscast on the state-run ORT channel. It had been a long day, packed with alarming news: the stockmarket had shrunk by $5 billion, in response to the targeting of several prominent oligarchs by law enforcement agencies -- Russian President Vladimir Putin had hinted publicly that the billionaires were growing too big for their britches and too ambitious politically; British Petroleum had indicated it might reconsider investing $8 billion in Russia if the investment climate did not become less murky; Moscow city transport fares were to go up drastically by the end of the summer; bread prices had already shot up (by 20% in some cities), and milk prices were expected to follow. This was especially bad news for the 70% of Russian families who live below the poverty level: bread and milk are their staples.

But Vremya did not waste its precious minutes on such mundane matters. Instead, it showed Economic Development Minister, German Gref, telling Putin that the country's GDP had grown by 7.2% and investment by over 12% -- and that citizens' incomes would grow by 6% by the end of the year. Then, Vremya showed Putin talking to the Tri-Partite Commission of entrepreneurs, state officials and trade-union bosses. They, too, declared that the future was bright for Russians. Next, the programme showed Putin talking to the Atomic Energy Minister who gave a glowing account of his industry's progress. Then, I saw Prince Charles donating a yacht to the Russian navy while on an official visit to St. Petersburg. Finally, there were a couple of foreign news items, and the weather forecast capped the program.

You might ask why I bother to watch news on state-run TV at all? Well, until a month ago, I watched to get the official line rather than for the news. Now I — and millions of other Russians — watch because there's no other option: the last independent all-Russian station, TVS, was closed last month, the victim of a long and painful struggle for survival between the hammer of the state and the anvil of a group of oligarchs who had pledged to fund its independence, but fell out among themselves when their interests collided.

I count myself lucky that I can still get some news on the Internet. I belong to the 4% of this country's population that has Internet access. The rest now has to do with Vremya, or Vesti, another state-run news program. On the net, I read an article by a young Russian journalist, bitterly complaining that state-run TV channels had become truncated to the point of being uninformative or misleading. Good for him. Except that this guy and I had an argument back in April 2001, when the government took over another private station, NTV. I asked why Russian journalists did not show much solidarity with NTV. He responded that the NTV crew had got too greedy and too ambitious. He refused to see the NTV takeover as a threat to the freedom of speech, and believed that Putin would set things right. Next time we meet, I'll ask him if he still thinks that. In the meantime, I'll have to learn to live with state-run TV.

It's a good thing I have plenty of practice from the old days. "Vremya will show how things will turn out tomorrow," is the newscast's daily signoff. Yeah, right. Back in Soviet times, we gauged the tide of events by the things Vremya didn't show, but we knew were happening, like the war in Afghanistan. Now, that's how we gauge the progress of another war -- Chechnya.

The more things change in Russia, the more they stay the same.

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