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Russian media under pressure ahead of Putin presidency

After stepping up election coverage, many independent news sites are facing tighter scrutiny by Russian government officials.

Russian journalist shot dead

“I understand that the initiative [for the reshuffling] did not come from Gazprom Media, but from higher political authorities,” Echo chief editor Alexei Venediktov said in a statement published on the station’s website.

Nikolai Senkevich, the president of Gazprom Media, said the decision was prompted by “increased attention” to the station from “all different sides” and the dismissal of the independent directors was a necessary change, Russian news service Ria Novosti reported.

Other recent incidents include an investigation into funding of opposition channel Dozhd, the freezing of funds for opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, a dismissal of an editor from the respected Kommersant newspaper after publication of a photograph of a defaced election ballot, and police beatings of several journalists covering anti-government protests.

In January, Russia’s Union of Journalists, an organization thought to be controlled by the Kremlin, appointed a new director for the Center of Extreme Journalism, a group that monitors freedom of press violations in Russia. The new director was one of the center’s analysts and has previously worked in the administration of Russia's first president, Boris Yeltsin.

The members of the center’s staff saw the new director as a government functionary and viewed his appointment as an attempt to control the organization, said Irada Guseinova, a former analyst at the center.

The entire staff of the Moscow office and affiliates in the CIS quit as a sign of protest.

“It all looks good on paper,” Guseinova said. The union has the right to appoint directors for the center, a subordinate organization. “But [in this environment] what’s the point of monitoring?”

While the government cracks down on the independents, it has shown an uncharacteristic openness in policy and state-run television channels.

A law that facilitates registration of political parties is about to pass. Earlier this week, Natalia Morar, a Moldovian-born journalist who wrote about state corruption in Moscow's New Times magazine was allowed back into the country after being refused entry for four years. Putin proposed to create a “speaker’s corner” where everyone can come and speak their mind, modeled after London’s Hyde Park.

For the first time ever, the “stop-list,” or an unofficial list of people not allowed to be broadcast, that includes government opposition and is usually decided by a channel's top officials, seems to have been lifted.

Opposition leaders Boris Nemtsov and Sergei Udaltsov appeared on two state-run channels last month, a first for prominent Kremlin opponents.

Television had to adapt to the demands of the people, said Alexander Morozov, the head of the Center for Media Studies, a Moscow think tank.

“It is impossible to hide what’s happening in the country,” Morozov said.

However, Gos Dep, a political talk show aired in February on Russian MTV and hosted by celebrity "It-girl" Kseniya Sobchak, was cancelled after just one episode for what many say was Sobchak's decision to bring Alexei Navalny, a popular blogger and anti-corruption activist, on the next show.

"Navalny is just not allowed on television," Morozov said.

NTV, also owned by Gazprom Media, has recently broadcast a series of reports, accusing the opposition of receiving money from the United States. The reports, largely thought by analysts, journalists, opposition and many Russians, to be smear documentaries ordered by the government, led to a rally protesting the reports, and a mass boycott of the channel.

Medvedev’s proposal to create a public broadcaster has been revived. The bill introduces public television and radio, with minimal government involvement, and programming aimed to create a civic society and inspire the viewer to be a better citizen, the Presidential Council's Fedotov, who is heading the project, said.

“The channel will make the viewer morally cleaner, inspire him to vote, recycle,” Fedotov said. Medvedev will pick the channel’s founders from a group nominated by the Presidential Council and the Public Chamber, seen as largely subordinate to the Kremlin.

However, at least some of the channel's funds will come from the state budget, Fedotov said. For many, this casts doubt on the project's claims of independence from the government. Other issues up for debate include competing with other channels for viewers and the broadcaster’s educational functions.

Television is a source of information, not mass education, Echo’s Buntman said. After decades of Communist rule, with only a brief period of relative media freedom, a strong, independent press is not a tradition in Russia. Forming this demand through public television is total nonsense, Buntman said.

“This understanding won’t magically emerge from public television,” Buntman said. “It will only emerge in a competitive media atmosphere, where each outlet will try to compete with the other for accurate coverage of events.”

Buntman doubts the broadcaster won't be controlled by the Kremlin.

"What if someone will decide there is too much negative information?" Buntman said.

The question on everyone’s mind is, what will happen after Putin’s inauguration on May 7.

The future of media depends on what political course Putin will take, either to try to work with everyone or take the nationalistic, patriotic line, Morozov said. It is possible that Putin will not pressure the media because he does not have any reason to be nervous, since he faces little criticism from abroad, Morozov said.

What looks like new media liberalization is temporary, said Aleksey Simonov, the president of Glasnost Defense Foundation, a nonprofit organization that monitors violations against press. After Putin's inauguration, the Culture Ministry will become responsible for media, now under the jurisdiction of the Communications Ministry, Simonov said. All three choices for the new minister in charge of media are heads of three state-run television channels, according to Russian news reports.

Although the inspections and, what Sklyarov calls “assault” on Pulse, has not stopped, on Tuesday Sklyarov won the first of two cases against his internet company in the local court.

“We are fighting, and we will continue to fight,” Sklyarov, 63, said. “I have a hot temper despite my age. I weigh 120 kg (260 lbs). Once you get me going, you can’t stop me.”