Gagging threat to Russian media

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ONE OF the few conspicuous accomplishments of Boris Yeltsin's rule - a vibrant and largely free media - is now under threat, caught in the pincers of economic disaster and an official clamp-down.

Russia's new prime minister, Yevgeny Primakov, has banned his officials from talking to journalists without permission, prompting protests that he is moving towards censorship.

The Russian Union of Journalists has written to the premier, who controlled inform- ation tightly while he was foreign minister. "Attempts to use the present situation to restore the idea of censorship is the height of cynicism," the letter states.

The government, which argues that the restrictions are temporary, appears to be trying to protect newly appointed officials amid turmoil, and to lessen the risk that an ill-judged remark will spark panic. They must have clearance from Mr Primakov's chief-of-staff, Admiral Yuri Zubakov, a veteran of the Soviet foreign intelligence service.

Some Russian journalists, remembering Soviet censorship only too well, remain suspicious, despite assurances from the premier that he is "a staunch supporter of freedom of speech and of the independence of mass media organs".

Mr Primakov pointed out that he was a newspaper correspondent for more than a decade. As he worked for Pravda, the official organ of the Communist Party - which worked closely with the KGB.-. few are reassured.

Although Mr Yeltsin introduced short-term censorship during the 1993 crisis, and his advisers brazenly manipulated the media during his 1996 re-election campaign, he haspresided over the evolution of a free media.

But the political landscape has altered significantly in the last month. The country's weight has shifted from the Kremlin, and its enfeebled occupant, and towards the Communist-dominated State Duma, which is packed with tub- thumpers who thrill at the thought of the censor's pen.

There are fears that the new premier will act on demands to introduce lasting restrictions. The Communists have been clamouring for the media to be overseen by state supervisors. Ekho Moskvi radio station, a bastion of free speech and energetic news reporting, has said it will challenge official efforts to gag it. "This is a dangerous signal," its editor-in- chief, Alexei Venediktov, told Kommersant newspaper, referring to the clampdown. "We do not exclude pursuing the issue through the courts."

But the Russian media faces a greater and more immediate threat from another quarter. Most of the commercial press is owned by a handful of oligarchs, who use it to advance their political interests and fight their business battles.

The same moguls have banks, now fighting for their survival after the government's debt default and devaluation. The paralysis of the economy is fast eating at their media holdings. A once-booming advertising market has halved in weeks. Scores of agencies that grew up in Moscow in the past few years have seen their business abruptly dry.

The retailers of luxury imported goods have stopped shipping in supplies because they are not being paid by distributors. An official from Russian Advertisers Association has forecast a fall in overall advertising spending from $2bn this year to a feeble $10m in 1999.

Moscow journalists who were last year commanding $5,000-a-month (riches caused by a shortage of talented writers) now face fast-shrinking pay packets. Even corrupt hacks - who pocket bribes for favourable articles - are expecting leaner times.

Although the oligarchs will protect their media mouthpieces for as long as they can, some closures and lay-offs are a certainty. In fact, one of Moscow's 19 daily papers has already been toppled. The year-old Russki Telegraf is merging with Izvestia, the former Soviet government newspaper. Founded in 1917, Izvestia has seen a Soviet-era circulation of 10m shrink to under 600,000, and is thought to be only breaking even. Others are cutting frantically. The popular weekly Orgonyok magazine said yesterday it was reducing staff by 10 per cent, and paying journalists less. The English-language Moscow Times has noticeably shrunk in size.

None of this bodes well for the health of Russia's political system. Masha Gessen, chief reporter of Itogi magazine, has predicted that the next election "will be filtered through the impoverished prism of state television and one or two surviving newspapers". That is not exactly fertile soil for a democratic contest.

Boris, the Kremlin's kingmaker, Review, page 8