TCS Daily

Ready for Prime Time

By Dominic Basulto - July 15, 2002 12:00 AM

News that the Russian Duma is planning to restrict Internet activities for anti-government and "extremist" opposition forces raised concerns from Western observers. Both CNET and the Christian Science Monitor were quick to hint that the new draft bill ("Draft on Contravention of Extremist Activities") was nothing more than a pretext for President Putin to muzzle anti-government political groups - including Western-leaning liberal factions that have been critical of the war in Chechnya. Media watchdogs are no doubt having a field day, ready to report on the erosion of Russia's freedom of the press, especially in light of Putin's role in closing down two independent TV stations (NTV, TV-6) within the past two years.

This knee-jerk reaction by the Western press and human rights activists about "freedom of speech" issues and fears of a new "totalitarian" regime, though, appears to be overstated and ignores the economic realities of the Russian media sector. In fact, the Kremlin actually supports a free-market solution that would create an independent media sector. Already, in Russia, there are over 3,000 broadcasting companies; 33,000 print media outlets; and 800 Internet-based publications. Even the regional television market - once dependent on Moscow - now boasts local stations that compete with the national channels. TV-6, closed down in January, re-opened as TVS in May, albeit under new leadership more loyal to the Kremlin.

The Kremlin's Pro-Market Media Policy

Putin has actually supported a number of steps to create a true independent media that relies on neither state subsidies (direct and indirect) nor wealthy oligarchs ("local feudal lords"). In fact, Putin and Press Minister Mikhail Lesin are now championing a new state policy for the government's role in the media: "One newspaper, one news agency, one television channel, one radio company." That is, instead of attempting to control the entire media sector, the Kremlin will simply support one state-backed entity and allow the free market to sort out the rest. The well-documented Russian "media wars" are a result of this painful restructuring process, and an unfortunate spillover of the current situation in Russia, which relies on "verticals of power" to consolidate power and the media as a powerful weapon to discredit enemies through "black PR" programs.

In mid-June, President Putin convened a meeting with leading media executives to discuss how the government could help restructure the media sector, creating independent media outlets that would combine responsible reporting, criticism of the government, and a reduced oversight role by the Kremlin. At this conference, Putin highlighted his pro-market orientation: "We are talking about turning the media industry into a modern market-based branch of the national economy. Without the economic independence of the mass media ... it is impossible to fulfill citizens' constitutional right to receive credible information."

Putin and his Press Minister, Mikhail Lesin, are aware of the underlying economic factors that hamper the freedom of the press. A list of these problems reads almost like a laundry list.

  • An unhealthy reliance on state budget subsidies to the media (which are granted on a select basis) forces media outlets to secure financing from local oligarchs or adopt a pro-government stance.
  • An immature and heavily monopolized advertising market can not sustain the current number of media outlets.
  • The lack of a self-regulatory mechanism ensures the need for continued government involvement.
  • Legal problems, such as the need for clearer rules on investment in media entities, create internal bids for power.
  • Even the Law on Mass Media (1991) dates back to the beginning of perestroika and is plagued by a number of contradictory statutes.

In the media (online and offline) sector, Putin has actually backed a number of initiatives to enhance the interaction between the electorate and the government. Most visibly, the Kremlin recently launched a new presidential web site that includes a searchable database of laws and regulations signed by the president. In other steps, the Kremlin recently hosted a two-day conference ("The Media Industry: Directions for Reform") and supported high-level talks between Putin and U.S. President Bush that led to the creation of an official Russian-American Media Entrepreneurship Dialogue. In recognition of the emerging role of the Internet, Putin has supported the further growth of the site as a source of responsible news reporting.

The Economic Context of the TV Wars

The Western press has tended to focus on Putin's decision to shut down NTV and TV-6 as proof that a closet authoritarian resides in the Kremlin. The real reason for Putin's move was not to clamp down on human rights and freedom of the press - it was to weaken the power base of two oligarchs that rose to power during the Yeltsin administration. The majority owner of TV6 was Boris Berezovsky - a billionaire investor (variously known as the "New Rasputin" and the "Cardinal in the Kremlin") rumored to have strong connections with the Chechen mafia. In the case of Media-MOST and NTV, the majority owner of the station was Vladimir Gusinksy, another mega-rich Moscow tycoon who ascended to power during the Yeltsin administration and used the media to discredit Putin's war in Chechnya. The struggle between rival power blocs usually occurs under the surface, such as calling loans of major investors or "re-examining" privatizations.

These moves, as might be expected, have met with an orchestrated backlash by those losing power. Without the "informational truncheon" of their media outlets, Russian oligarchs no longer have a tool to weaken Putin and regain power. In a cynical move, Berezovsky has attempted to cultivate an image as a "protector of free speech," knowing that these phrases will resonate with Western audiences and some Russian citizens. No doubt, the latest clampdown against radical elements such as neo-Nazis and religious extremists - sparked by a string of unfortunate incidents, will attract outsiders eager to discredit Putin's reform program and brand him as an autocrat.

No doubt the Russian media sector still has steps to address before it secures true Western-style freedom of speech and becomes fully independent. In the regions far from Moscow and St. Petersburg, these issues are especially acute. Most importantly, though, both Putin and the Kremlin have shown a surprising understanding of the underlying economic problems and a desire to put an end to the "media wars". In this context, the restructuring of the media sector will create the necessary pre-conditions for freedom of speech.

Thus, alarmist cries about a monolithic Soviet state, led by KGB veteran Putin, muzzling "freedom of speech" are premature. If anything, Putin has shown a willingness to start a dialogue with the media, oust the Moscow oligarchs that currently control the "independent" media, and implement a number of Internet initiatives to support greater trust between citizens and the government. In a perfect world envisioned by the leaders of the G-8, the Russian media industry would be more developed and new Duma laws would not cause as much consternation. Unfortunately, the reality is that Russian society is divided into "verticals of power," in which there is a blurring of the line between the public and private sectors and bids for power continually renew themselves in the media spotlight.



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