Putin's Russia -- Case Study in Media Control

Starting Saturday, the leaders of the world's wealthiest democracies will for the first time hold a major summit meeting in a country without a free press.

The heads of states attending the 32nd annual G-8 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, are unlikely to see or read news stories critical of their host, Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Working conditions for journalists in Russia "continued to worsen alarmingly in 2005, with violence the most serious threat to press freedom," says the annual report of the watchdog group Reporters Without Borders. "The lack of broadcasting diversity and closure of several independent newspapers crushed by huge fines is alarming. "

Last week The Guardian reported that the number of Russian radio stations carrying news programs from the U.S.-funded Voice of America and Radio Liberty fell from from 72 to nine since September. (Editor's note: The Guardian report followed an initial story on the regulations by The Post's Peter Finn.)

Observers say political control is most complete in country's national television channels: Channel One, NTV and RTR. "They are all either controlled by the Kremlin or run by editors who know what not to say," according to Allison Gill, director of the Human Rights Watch office in Moscow.

Putin rejects any criticism of his government's media policy. A gathering of Russian opposition leaders in Moscow on the eve of the summit prompted Putin to tell Canadian television that "constant criticism of problems with democracy and media freedom is being used . . . to interfere in Russia's domestic and foreign policy."

The government domination of TV began with Russia's second war in Chechnya in 1999, says Sarah E. Mendelson, a senior fellow of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"Putin saw how television coverage forced Russia out of the first Chechen war [in 1995-1996] and he made sure it didn't happen again," she says.

"Bringing court cases against two of the country's biggest tycoons, Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky, and acting through the giant energy groups Gazprom and Lukoil, the Kremlin wrested control of NTV in 2001 and ordered the closure of TV-6 in 2002," says the BBC.

NTV still exists today but "in a sadly emasculated form," says Human Rights Watch's Gill.

Last year, Putin's government launched Russia Today, an English-language international channel with a Web site that makes online viewing easy. The channel does have an opinion program, "Spotlight." But on the eve of the G-8, the program focused not on the central issues of energy and Iran, but on the less controversial question of whether summit would listen to non-governmental organizations.

In comparison to broadcast media, newspapers are marginal to public opinion and politics in Russia, according to Russia observers.

Kommersant is one of the few independent, widely-circulated print newspapers. It was formerly owned by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a tycoon now serving a prison sentence over charges that international observers said were largely cooked up by the Kremlin to remove a potential Putin adversary from the national spotlight. Kommersant has an English-language Web site that reported on the conference of Putin critics and provides sympathetic coverage to reform movements in Ukraine and Georgia

Novaya Gazeta and Nezavisimaya Gazeta have much smaller circulations but offer more critical news and are often quoted in international media. Former Soviet leader Mikail Gorbachev told The Times of London last month that he had bought a stake in Novaya Gazeta "which is famed for anti-corruption investigations and has criticised Mr Putin." (More from The Post here.)

The country's news agencies -- Interfax, ITAR-TASS and RIA Novosti -- churn out hundreds of news stories a day but offer little in the way of opinion or analysis.

The leading independent English-language news sites are the Moscow Times and Moscow News.

Russian newspapers "can be quite interesting," says CSIS's Mendelson. "There are a handful of brave journalists but they are not supported by national institutions."

The Russian public does not put a high value on private ownership of media, she says.

"When we did nine focus groups around Russia about the media, people said 'Gusinksy has his station, Berezovsky had his station. We don't like that.' They know they may not get the whole story from the government but they trust the state more."

Which is the way Putin likes it when international visitors come calling.

In Today's Post: "Putin Will Host G-8 In a Russia Under Ever Tighter Control," by Peter Finn.

By washingtonpost.com Editors |  July 13, 2006; 8:55 AM ET  | Category:  Europe , Press Freedom
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Khodorkovsk! He is one of eight jewish
oligarchs who connived to rob Russia of her natural resources and now are trying to take over. Such a surprise. The long plan. The Russian people hate those oligarchs, know all about them and wisely, as Sarah Mendelson laments, trust the Putin government more. Certain elements in the west try to foment rebellion and revoluation in Russia. So helpful to world peace.

Posted by: peter | July 13, 2006 10:52 AM

Bush's enthusiastic participation in this summit and his caving in to Putin's demands show that all that pro-democracy rhetoric of his is so much rubbish.
Bush has never been a democrat, he's never shown himself to be respectful of the need for a diverse media landscape, and he's never shown respect at all for the rule of law (to whit, Guantanamo, the Iraq invasion, his undermining of Kyoto and the International Criminal Court).
Bush and Putin should get along just great. They represent the same values.

Posted by: Sergio | July 13, 2006 11:20 AM

Former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder used to go to the G-8s, where he flashed his support for the Russian-German pipeline consortium controlled by Gazprom. When Schröder got bopped from office in Germany, Putin rewarded the chestnut-helmeted social democrat with a directorship on the board of the pipeline, proving yet again that the Third Way is paved with slime, and leaving Dick Cheney all licked and unloaded, envying Putin's media control from side of the road.

Posted by: Reynolds | July 13, 2006 12:58 PM

While I am sure many of the criticisms of Russia are valid, I have the same criticisms of the American press. I believe that it is reflects corporate interests or whatever idiocy comes out of the Bush Administration.
I am also very suspicious of Orange Revolutions in Eastern Europe, and the propaganda associated with them. Under the cover of such labels as Freedom, Democracy, Free Trade, and a Free Press, the Bush Administration and Corporate interests are attempting to replace Soviet Imperialism with Corporate Economic Imperialism. In other words, they want to economically rape,among others, Eastern Europe and Russia.

Posted by: P. J. Casey | July 13, 2006 01:31 PM

Russian people have finally courage to charge full prices for theit resources. And all those satellites Poland ,Georgia etc. who hate Russia but now whining about price of oil and gas. Georgia used to receive $20 billion a year from Soviet Union now they are hoping for the same from Bush. They have a long wait.

Posted by: Son of Russia | July 13, 2006 03:26 PM

It is true about the State-run media, but there are now also more privately owned newspapers, journals and local television and radio stations than ever before -- three times as many as there were under Yeltsin. (Source: http://english.intelligent.ru/)

Also, while journalists like Anna Politkovskaya speak out about Putin's grip on the media, books like hers which are critical of Putin are widely available all over Moscow.

It doesn't sound like Russia has a utopian democracy, but the story appears to be more nuanced and less terrible than many present it.

Posted by: t.l.m. | July 13, 2006 04:24 PM

As someone who worked as a journalist in Moscow, I'd like to correct part of this post for the record.

Kommersant was never owned by Khodorkovsky. It was owned by another oligarch, Boris Berezovsky, who is now in self-imposed exile in London, having fallen out with Putin shortly after Putin came to power.

Khodorkovsky did own a newspaper, but it was the weekly Moskovsky Novosti (Moscow News).

Posted by: Caroline McGregor | July 13, 2006 06:39 PM

No matter what we say about Putin & Russia,the whole world,including US of A cannot ignore the fact that,he has turned the countries economy around.Its growing at a steady rate of 7%.Russia is paying off all its debts etc.The country was on the verge of collapse,when good old Yeltsin left.Yet the western media potrayed him as the saviour of Russia.Why??
A lot of propoganda is there in the USA also.Like,your citizens,who are so ready to connect Saddam Hussien to Al Qaeda.There was not even the slightest proof of him having WMD,save a dilapidated arsenal,which was built up by you people in the 80s against Iran.I do agree that you are doing it for the welfare of your citizens,since you need oil.Now dont you feel Putin's Russia is way better??

Posted by: Jay | July 23, 2006 05:23 PM

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