Free Press in Russia: A Borscht of Perspective

July 7, 2008 - 8:13 PM

(Editor's Note: The author is traveling in and reporting from Russia as part of a delegation of American journalists sponsored by the Russia Information Agency)
Moscow (CNSNews.com) - The demise of Soviet communism in Russia and the rise of the Russian Federation, with its vast changes in civil liberties and free market enterprise, has brought with it a greatly expanded degree of freedom of the press.

The number of Russian media outlets, once under the almost exclusive control of the Communist Party, has exploded with a wide variety of print and broadcast sources of news.

But the question of whether those press freedoms can endure within the federation, which is still staffed by mostly former communist officials, is subject to wide disagreement among human rights activists, journalism unions and working Russian newsmen and women.

Emerging from a series of interviews conducted from downtown Moscow to the wilderness of Siberia's vast oil plains is a muddled portrait of the Russian media; one that's colored in varying degrees by historical perspective, ideology, nationality and personal pride.

Despite the growth of Russia's media industry over the past 12 years, there's still debate over the future of such liberties, and a number of government closures of aggressive television news operations in recent years have cast a shadow over Russia's newfound press freedoms.

'The destruction of independent television'


Among those most critical of government restrictions on news coverage is Igor Yakovenko, general secretary of the Russian Union of Journalists.

Founded in 1918 around the time of the Communist Revolution in Russia, the union has been reconstituted several times over the years, maturing from an official arm of the Communist Party in the 1950s to a collective bargaining and free press advocacy group today.

Some of the most controversial issues regarding government control of the media surround television news, the medium with the greatest reach in the Russian Federation.

Several TV news operations have been shut down in recent years under questionable circumstances, including TV 6 and TVS, both of which were widely regarded as aggressive in their news coverage and often critical of the government.

Speaking through a translator, Yakovenko said the June closure of TVS by the government was the third phase of "the destruction of independent television news" in Russia.

The government has said TVS was shut down because the operation had a mounting pile of debt it could not repay; others question the manner in which the government took that action, saying TVS was denied due process.

But Yakovenko conceded TVS was in financial trouble anyway and probably would have been driven off the air without government intervention. "It was dying on its own," because of low revenues and high debt, said Yakovenko.

According to Yakovenko, the landscape has changed dramatically over the years for Russian journalists. During the administration of former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, which Yakovenko referred to as "drunk or unsympathetic," journalists faced restrictions and even murder at the local and regional level, but they reported news with relatively little interference from the federal government.

Today, under President Vladimir Putin, "it's almost exactly the opposite," said Yakovenko, with most local and regional officials accustomed to and accommodating of aggressive journalism, but with increased restrictions sought by the Putin administration.

In Yakovenko's estimation, "You would need a microscope" to see the differences between state-run television news and NTV, the last remaining "independent" television news network.

Fair and balanced, Russian style


Aset Vatsueva, a co-anchor on NTV's 10:00 p.m. broadcast of Country and World, disputed charges that the network has gone soft on the Putin administration, saying the network has correspondents filing regular reports from war-torn Chechnya and has reported other stories ignored by state-run media.

"NTV tries to describe all the information happening in Chechnya as objectively as possible," Vatsueva said through a translator.

Regarding news coverage from Chechnya and other sensitive subjects, "I can't see any limitations right now," said Vatsueva, a recent journalism graduate of Moscow University and the daughter of a former Chechen newspaper editor-in-chief. "There are no limitations to (our) reports."

Vatsueva also dismissed Yakovenko's charge that NTV has a policy that features only positive news about the Putin administration and includes "nothing on Chechnya." Vatsueva argues that day-to-day actions in the Chechen conflict aren't necessarily newsworthy, but the network does cover more newsworthy events from the republic.

"There is just a routine in Chechnya and people are used to it," said Vatsueva. "As a Chechen woman, I would always report on important, breaking news."

The erosion of press freedom


Ludmila Alexeeva, president of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights and a long time activist during the Soviet era, said "It is impossible to compare" press freedoms in the Russian Federation with the Soviet Union because of a much larger degree of freedom and many more news outlets available.

But Alexeeva was critical of government efforts to reign-in television news, which is by far the single most powerfull medium in the country, going so far as to call NTV, which is ostensibly independent, "state media."

"I think they are afraid" to be as critical of government policy as they once were, said Alexeeva.

"Maybe it's self-censorship, I don't know. But there is no difference between, for example, the news from state channels and NTV. I observe it," said Alexeeva, a former Communist Party member who was expelled from the party in 1968 after coming to the defense of a friend who was arrested by Soviet police.

According to Alexeeva, there has been a decline in free reporting on television news over the past two years, but said the radio station Echo Moscow remained one of the more aggressive media outlets.

However, she said its influence is limited because few people outside Moscow can listen to the station.

Language, nationality matter


At The Moscow Times, the first English-language newspaper in the Russian Federation, Editor-in-Chief Lynn Berry said she hasn't seen any government interference in the way news is reported at the paper she manages.

"We write as we see fit," said Berry. "There hasn't been any threat or pressure from the government," regarding what the newspaper prints, though she did say, "It's television that takes the hit" because of its national reach.

"I think you can make the case for the free media because we exist without any pressure," said Moscow Times Business Editor Bradley Cook, who suspected the newspaper's circulation of about 35,000 mostly American readers accounted for some of its freedom.

"You look at the readership - those are exactly the type of people you want to be able to convince that there's a free press," said Bradley. "The (U.S.) State Department reads us all the time."

Bradley speculated The Moscow Times may have wide latitude precisely for that reason. "If we were pressured, that would be a story," he said. "And since there hasn't been, that works to the Kremlin's advantage."

Journalism in the wilderness: two perspectives


Sometimes the concept of a 'free press' in Russia today and comparing it to that of the Soviet era is dependent on the perspective and professional experience of the reporter.

During a roundtable discussion with journalists in Nizhnevartovsk, Siberia, one reporter who departed before being formally identified said, "Fifteen years ago, we could never afford to write or speak about problems, or criticize the municiapl authorities," explaining that today, journalists are free write about a broad variety of government and consumer issues.

But Parashoutina Tania, the deputy editor-in-chief of the Siberian newspaper Mestnoye Vremia who reported news under communist rule, disputed that characterization.

Speaking through a translator, Tania said, "I can't say that I agree with the previous answer," and she told the roundtable about lists of "taboo subjects" that could be reported on, but only with "some blessing from some highly placed people," within the Communist Party.

"Even in those times, we had a way out of the situation. I'm speaking from my personal experience," said Tania.

Tania suggested that journalism critical of Communist Party officials was manipulated and subject to a pecking order of power, with higher-placed officials giving permission to "write some criticism about communist leaders, for example, but in inferior positions."

Regardless of the era in which the Russian journalism trade is plied, Tania said, "I stick to the opinion that there is no free press as it is," because censorship today is imposed by either the government or the media outlet's ownership.

Philip Terzian, a nationally syndicated columnist with The Providence Journal who was part of a delegation of American journalists visiting Russia, paraphrased for his Siberian colleagues the words of American journalist and critic A. J. Leibling.

"Freedom of the press belongs to the man who owns one," said Terzian.

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