Communists decry Yeltsin's media circus



His critics say he bends with the wind, that he has no real convictions. But there is one issue about which Gennady Zyuganov, Russia's Communist leader, is consistent as he campaigns across the huge country that he would so love to rule: he thinks that much of the Russian media is out to get him.

With just over two months to go before the presidential election, Mr Zyuganov has seen his once commanding lead in the polls shrink to single figures. There is, he claimed yesterday, "a powerful machinery" opposing him. It has even produced a pile of official documents outlining the best way of crushing his presidential challenge, he said.

And he believes one of the main weapons against him is the Kremlin's ability to manipulate the press. This week he spelt out this grievance in an attack on the state-controlled Rossiskaya Gazeta after it refused to publish his party's pre-election programme. "Here we are, electing a president," he complained, "and yet the government newspaper does not familiarise its readers with all the materials."

Mr Zyuganov, it must be said, has a case. One reason for Boris Yeltsin's improving fortunes - polls place him between four and nine points behind the Communist leader - is the extensive television coverage of the President's activities.

This is hardly surprising. Russia's two top television stations, ORT and Russian Television (RTR), are state-controlled. In February, their executives were given a harsh object lesson about the perils of displeasing the Kremlin, when Mr Yeltsin sacked the head of RTR, Oleg Poptsov, accusing him of misreporting the war in Chechnya.

A third big network, NTV, has long had a reputation for challenging the Yeltsin administration, an independence of spirit that resulted in several angry clashes with the authorities. Last year, for example, the Procurator General launched a criminal investigation into a NTV reporter who interviewed the Chechen rebel commander Shamil Basayev. There was a row over a widely ridiculed attempt by prosecutors to bring a case against Kukly, an irreverent Spitting Image-type programme - an ill-judged plan that was eventually abandoned. Yet these days, NTV's coverage of Mr Yeltsin has softened markedly.

Critics have attributed this to the fact that NTV's president, Igor Malashenko, has not only declared support for the President but also heads the information department for his re-election campaign. Mr Malashenko is reportedly being advised by Sir Tim Bell, Baroness Thatcher's former spin-doctor, though Sir Tim has refused to comment. Sir Tim is said to have been the inspiration behind a recent appearance on NTV of Mr Yeltsin's wife, Naina. In a glowing prime-time interview, she extolled her husband's qualities, which included being a dab hand at cooking Siberian dumplings.

While the television companies are on the President's side, so too are many of the newspapers - not least because many of them rely on government subsidies to survive. Although the Communists can rely on support from three opposition papers (Pravda, Sovietskaya Rossiya and Zavtra), they are under fire from the majority of the other major players, including the mass-circulation Argumenti i Fakty, and Izvestia.

However, Mr Zyuganov's complaints about unfair reporting would carry more weight among non-Communist voters if his own views on press freedom were more liberal. He recently said he did not believe criticism of the Soviet Union should necessarily be protected as free speech. "We are for full freedom of expression but we want the journalists to be guided by law. I do not think that it is an instance of freedom of expression when those who call themselves democrats ... lay the red Soviet flag out like a door mat, and wipe their feet on it."

Fears about his views were emphasised yesterday by the Fund for Protection of Glasnost, a civil-rights group set up to protect press freedom. If Mr Zyuganov wins power, it would close within six months, said its chairman, Alexei Simonov: "The idea of Communist heaven cannot be combined with the freedom of the press."