Russia feels the lack of a Paxman

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Whatever other delights it has in store for the world, the Russian presidential election looks as if it will be lacking in one vital element. There will be no Jeremy Paxman or Robin Day, no national television taskmaster ready to whip out his rapier wit at the merest whiff of a lying politician. Anyone who tries such tactics faces being banned from the air waves - at least on the government-run networks.

The central election commission is putting the finishing touches to rules which - while restraining journalists from openly supporting individual politicians - also bar those who chair TV debates from asking questions of the candidates. They wouldn't even be allowed to interrupt.

Anyone unable to control the urge to butt in will run the risk of professional suicide: they could be suspended, or even fired. "Journalists would simply be made into microphone holders," said Pavel Kutepov, of the Russian Union of Journalists.

The move comes as Russia braces itself for a turbulent election in June, in which the freedom of the media is fast becoming a prominent issue. The fact that the commission's regulations would only apply to state-run television and radio and three government-funded national newspapers impresses no one. The government controls ORT and RTR, the top two TV stations and the only channels with national coverage.

The commission was yesterday unwilling to comment, pointing out that the rules were still only in draft form. But it has been quietly spreading word that the rules are intended to prevent the government-owned media from being pressured into supporting President Boris Yeltsin, thus safeguarding the interests of his opponents. This may be disingenuous; the rules would also muzzle criticism of the government.

When Mr Yeltsin launched his election campaign last month he placed press freedom high on his list of achievements. But journalists have not forgotten that one of his first acts during his stand-off with parliament in 1993 which led to the shelling of the White House in Moscow was to close down the opposition newspaper,Rossiskaya Gazeta, and to censor television. They also point out that journalists are physically attacked with alarming frequency. The most frightening example came in late 1994 when the reporter Dmitry Kholodov, who had been investigating corruption in the armed forces, was blown up by a briefcase bomb in Moscow.

The conflict in Chechnya, a deeply unpopular war which is threatening Mr Yeltsin's chances of re-election, has brought out the Kremlin's worst instincts. After the TV pictures of Russia's humiliating onslaught on Pervomayskoye were broadcast around the world, journalists found themselves barred from the conflict zone.

Mr Yeltsin has pledged to end the war before the election. This may turn out to mean ending coverage of a war which will simmer on indefinitely, but out of sight. In such a landscape, the sight of a Paxman would be welcome indeed.