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.
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