TOPICS > Nation

Russian Media Crackdown

July 1, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: For the third time in three years, the government of President Vladimir Putin has closed Russia’s lone nationwide independent television network. On June 16, TVs was shuttered by the government and converted into a state-run sports channel.

In early 2002, TV6, as it was then called, was abruptly pulled off the air in a dispute with a Kremlin-connected minority shareholder. In 2000, the predecessor NTV Network was in effect nationalized after its largest creditor, the state-connected energy conglomerate, called in its debts. The network’s owner was arrested, and later went into exile.

All of the networks had been critical of the Putin government, especially of its prosecution of the war in Chechnya.

Late last month, the Russian parliament passed legislation in record time that restricts the media’s freedom to cover upcoming elections. The move had the support of president Putin, who is expected to sign the measure.

Joining us to discuss these developments are Yevgeny Kiselyov, former editor-in-chief of TVs and its predecessors, NTV and TV6, and Ellen Mickiewicz, Duke University professor and author of Changing Channels: Television and the Struggle for Power in Russia.

Welcome to you both.

TERENCE SMITH: Yevgeny Kiselyov, explain to us if you will the importance and the significance of an independent nationwide television network in Russia today.

YEVGENY KISELYOV: An independent nationwide television channel is as important in Russia as in any other country because such a channel could be a very important mirror which even a very democratic government may look into and see how it really looks like in the eyes of the voters, of its citizens.

And in a country which is not a real democracy — and Russia, with all the achievements that we had in the last 10 or 15 years on the path from communist totalitarian past to modern-like democracy — with all these achievements, Russia has not yet become a real democracy in the western sense of the word.

In such a country, an independent channel is more than important.

TERENCE SMITH: And this latest closing, was that financial or political, or both?

YEVGENY KISELYOV: Well, every child in this country understands that basic reasons are political. This country under this regime does not want any real democratical, independent, free electronic media at all.

TERENCE SMITH: Ellen Mickiewicz, was the timing of this latest closing governed by the electoral calendar? There are parliamentary elections coming up in the fall, and of course, presidential election next spring.

ELLEN MICKIEWICZ: Election time is the time when whatever fragile structure there is of media diversity just collapses. And it’s peculiar in a way because television and its impact is actually overstated, overemphasized, and therefore such care has to be taken that it’s almost irrational.

Let me just suggest that why indeed have electoral laws that are stringent and that govern content when you’ve got three compliant national networks? It seems like overkill. And in a way, it is.

But then again, there’s another reason, I think, for what seems like overkill, and that is that you really do have a very, very corrupt relationship between candidates and the media, state and private, where time is sold, where you have to pay to get your news conference covered, so that there is a real problem, and the government is trying to do something about it. This is exactly the wrong way, that will, incidentally, have much greater and worse impact in the regions, to judge by content whether you should warn and eventually perhaps close down television stations.

TERENCE SMITH: Yevgeny Kiselyov, how widespread is that corrupt relationship, as Ellen Mickiewicz refers to it? How widespread is that, between politicians and the compliant media?

YEVGENY KISELYOV: If you want me to be really frank with you, I would say that all the compliant television stations, all the compliant television channels, they very closely cooperate with the politicians that are supporting the president and the government.

The major task which the government is setting up before the election is to get — for the first time in modern Russia’s history — is to get an absolute parliamentary majority, to win the absolute parliamentary majority — or probably they have another goal to have two-thirds of the parliament — so that they can change the constitution, for example, set a path for a third presidential term, because Putin’s powers are limited to two terms like you have in the United States. And to achieve that goal, they want to consolidate all the media. Probably it’s an overkill. But… and probably they overestimate the importance of television.

But if you return back to 1999, when Putin was elected… well, he was elected in 2000, of course, but when he started his rise to political… ultimate political power, he was a nobody.

And his tremendous popularity in Russia was created by the only media, television, and probably because of this personal history Mr. Putin himself tends to overestimate the importance of television, the ultimate weapon that created him as Russia’s new president.

TERENCE SMITH: And do you, Yevgeny Kiselyov, do you see president Putin’s fingerprints, so to speak, on these latest moves to restrict the media?

YEVGENY KISELYOV: Well, I may not say that he gave any… I don’t think that he gave any specific, direct orders to close TVs down. And I don’t think that he gave any specific orders to close TV6 down.

I think that he was very specific about the fate of former NTV because we met during that crisis. That was long ago, in, I would say it was in January 2000, not long before his election as president. And he made it quite clear that he wanted NTV to be taken over by pro-government company Gazprom.

But I don’t think that he was directly behind the decision of shutting us off the air this time. But at the same time, I know for sure that there are many spin doctors around him that are very much willing to help his major political goals.

TERENCE SMITH: Ellen Mickiewicz, contrast for us the differences in the image of President Putin in the West — he was given a royal reception in Britain just recently; he’s seen as this breath of fresh air here. Contrast that with the realities of restrictions that are being imposed on the media now in Russia.

ELLEN MICKIEWICZ: Well, obviously there are many sides to what President Putin is doing. And one must never forget, as Russian voters didn’t forget — and I would like to challenge Yevgeny a bit on this, about television having made President Putin — the comparison is between Putin and his predecessor, a man, Boris Yeltsin, who was very often inert, incapacitated. And so this is very, very different. This is actually a working, live head of state.

Second, I think as far as the west is concerned, there are many issues in which to engage President Putin other than human rights — for example, what’s happening in Chechnya, what’s happening in the press. And I think those other issues — issues of terrorism, issues of the Middle East — those are issues that have perhaps different priorities for the West.

I think internally… and again, let me return for a moment to this election of 2000 that made President Putin. Let’s not forget that not only was Putin not Yeltsin, but Putin was the person who stormed into Chechnya after terror hit Moscow with apartment buildings being blown up. So, here was real fear and real terrorism for the first time brought to the heart of Moscow. And yes, television was the pipeline by which you got to see this man Vladimir Putin, but that doesn’t mean that people were zombified into simply accepting him.

There were many other reasons. And that’s something that’s been left out of this discussion, and that’s the public. The government may have an agenda, it may wish to speak with one voice on the television networks, but people don’t receive it that way. They know full well that there are positions, and it’s up to the audience to navigate around those positions. They take a very active role in that, and they’re much more engaged than, say, well, comparable western audiences.

TERENCE SMITH: All right. I’m afraid we’re out of time, but we’ll have to simply stay tuned as these parliamentary and general elections approach and see what happens. Thank you both for joining us this evening.