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Putin and the Press

February 27, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: For a further look at the delicate state of press freedom in Russia, we are joined by Ellen Mickiewicz from the Sanford Center of Public Policy at Duke University. She is the author of “Changing Channels: Television and the Struggle for Power in Russia.” Welcome to you. Tell us since you’ve written about this, how important to Russians in terms of getting their news is television?

ELLEN MICKIEWICZ: Television is absolutely overwhelming dominant. The newspaper industry has just imploded. People depend for news and information heavily on television which is free and over 85 percent of the population gets its news and information solely from television.

TERENCE SMITH: And as it was mentioned in the piece there are three national networks.


TERENCE SMITH: But the other two are government controlled?

ELLEN MICKIEWICZ: The other two are government controlled. One directly owned by the state outright. And NTV is the only fully commercial independent channel.

TERENCE SMITH: Why should Americans care whether or not NTV remains independent?

ELLEN MICKIEWICZ: Freedom of the press doesn’t equal democracy. But it certainly is impossible to have democracy without it. And I think it’s very much in the American interest and concern whether or not and how Russia develops her democracy. This is a vast country with huge natural resources. It’s our neighbor. It’s got nuclear capacity and an extraordinarily, well educated labor force. This is a major presence and it affects very much the world in which the United States lives in.

TERENCE SMITH: Secretary of State Powell has raised this issue with his Soviet counterpart. What does that say to you?

ELLEN MICKIEWICZ: I think it says that the United States is interested for those reasons but I think there is another reason too. I don’t know it went into the Secretary’s thinking but whatever happens with NTV say, and the foreign investors might send signals about the attractiveness of the climate in Russia for foreign investment and trade relations.

TERENCE SMITH: This offer to invest up to $300 million to buy essentially a quarter share in NTV from George Soros and from Ted Turner is sort of an extraordinary expression of their feeling, I suppose, of the important of the independence?

ELLEN MICKIEWICZ: It is. And one could say, I do think, that NTV of all the media properties in the long have you been probably the best bet for investment.

TERENCE SMITH: So they might make profit?

ELLEN MICKIEWICZ: Well it’s a highly risky investment. It would have been very long term I think before it does satisfy expectations. So I do think given that — that these other reasons, these reasons about the development and growth of democracy in Russia must be paramount.

TERENCE SMITH: Well, if Messers Turner and Soros get the guarantees they say they need to invest – namely a guarantee of continued independence — would their involvement, that foreign American involvement, be enough do you think to guarantee that independence?

ELLEN MICKIEWICZ: I think that NTV, which isn’t perfect, it does present an alternative — it’s by far the most professional and has the highest credibility and trust in every national poll in Russia — I do think NTV has a professional staff that will continue. And as long as the Turner investment — should it come about –enables that staff to maintain its editorial autonomy, then it might well be enough.

TERENCE SMITH: I guess what I’m asking is was there involvement in their investment — make the Putin government more reluctant to step in and close it down?

ELLEN MICKIEWICZ: Well, I think if the Putin government were to do that, it would sense signals about investment in Russian. And I think those are the kinds of signals that President Putin doesn’t want to send. He’s very interested in attracting foreign investment and indeed has to. So I do think it would be insurance.

TERENCE SMITH: Tell me whether you think his background, President Putin’s background as a KGB officer, affects his attitude towards an independent press.

ELLEN MICKIEWICZ: I don’t know. One could also say that as a KGB officer he saw how the press operated in other countries, which those who stayed at home didn’t. I think the real question with Putin that he has he sees as his mission pulling Russia up by its boot straps from its very difficult condition. He wants everybody on the team and I don’t think he perhaps realizes that a press with different points of view that does offer criticism actually helps that.

TERENCE SMITH: Now in the piece, in Simon Marx’s piece, we saw the Russian Minister of Information, Mikhail Lesin, argue that there are many voices in Russia today that, that his phrase was, there is real freedom of speech. Is there?

ELLEN MICKIEWICZ: I think there is. There is nothing stopping it. But if the other side of it is, if you’re a Russian and you do depend on television, because the newspaper is either too expensive or you can’t get it, then you’re really dependent on three channels, two of which take the same position and one which offers different views and perhaps in some cases different information.

TERENCE SMITH: I suppose while there may be other independent voices you’re saying they don’t have the reach that NTV does, the national reach?

ELLEN MICKIEWICZ: That’s right. In many ways it’s a market question. It can be out there but it’s not accessible.

TERENCE SMITH: What are the prospects? You have studied this a long time. Obviously you don’t know and can’t know. But if you had to guess how do you think this will play out?

ELLEN MICKIEWICZ: I think that’s certainly speculative. But do I think that NTV has a special place. I think that Gusinsky, who’s clearly tarnished as are many of the businessmen, if he were separated from the actual operation of NTV, while the editorial autonomy was more or less guaranteed, that would be the best solution and it might happen depending on the talks that are going on now. I certainly hope it does happen because I think that overall it would be a strength for indeed — for the kinds of things that Putin wants to do to advance the economy.

TERENCE SMITH: Well in fact, those talks seem to be in a very delicate stage. We should say we invited both George Soros and Ted Turner to be on this evening. And they both declined and George Soros’ office indicated that there may be some developments next week. We’ll have to stay tuned. Ellen Mickiewicz, thank you very much.

ELLEN MICKIEWICZ: You’re welcome.