Russian press facing threat to free speech

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The Independent Online
Press freedom in post-Soviet Russia has always been a half-hearted affair, as Boris Yeltsin proved when he brazenly manipulated the media to secure his election victory last year. Now, Moscow is in the throes of an intense debate over fears that, after shedding the yoke of oppressive state control under the Soviet Union, the media is seeing its new freedoms wither away entirely.

Among the issues under scrutiny is whether the airwaves and newspapers are falling into the hands of a corporate elite who have close ties with the Kremlin, and want to use the media to advance their common interests.

Concern is also focusing on attempts in parliament to tighten restrictions on the media. Members of Russia's Duma, or lower house of parliament, recently banned one of Russia's big three television companies, ORT, from covering its sessions, after accusing it of bias.

Although they had to back down after the station went to court, this week they launched a broader offensive, voting overwhelmingly to impose strict limits on the coverage of their debates, after complaining that the television companies concentrate unfairly on their worst moments - notably, slanging matches and fist-fights.

The cameras are to be operated by the in-house press service, which will select footage to be distributed to broadcasters. Scenes such as the infamous brawl between the ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and a female member of parliament will, if parliament's will prevails, no longer be broadcast.

But a deeper trend is at work, an offshoot of Mr Yeltsin's re-election campaign which was widely acknowledged as a masterpiece in media control, turning rock-bottom ratings into a resounding victory last July. His Communist and nationalist opponents were squeezed off the air, often by journalists who were willing to shelve concerns about free speech to ensure their defeat.

To Russia's top business executives and bankers, it was an object lesson in the importance of a media power base. Since then, they have been buying strategic stakes in newspapers and television companies.

Although the principle is the same as the commercial media in the West, there are differences: unlike their American and European counterparts, the interests of Russia's media owners mesh more closely with those of the government. The two entities are sometimes almost inseparable.

There are plenty of examples. Recently Gazprom - the vast gas monopoly with close ties to the Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, its former boss - bought a 30 per cent stake in NTV, another major television channel. The station is controlled by Vladimir Gusinsky, one of a coterie of Moscow businessmen who poured money and resources into the Yeltsin campaign.

Boris Berezovsky, another multi-millionaire entrepreneur from the same camp, was rewarded for his loyalty by being made deputy secretary of the Security Council. He continues to control the influential Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Ogonyok magazine. He also has a 16 per cent slice of ORT television, which he used to run.

In the past he has been frank about his tactics. "By creating a powerful means of influencing society, we are supporting the continuation of economic policy," he told an interviewer last year. It was, he said, "a union of state and capital". He has since demonstrated how it works: when Ogonyok journalists published an article which embarrassed Mr Chernomyrdin, Mr Berezovsky cut their pay. Few observers doubt that the media moguls will throw their weight around when they need to. Critics quote the case this month involving Izvestia newspaper. It reprinted a story from Le Monde alleging that Mr Chernomyrdin had a personal fortune of $5bn pounds 3bn). One of Izvestia's major shareholders, the oil giant Lukoil, was so infuriated by the claim that it warned that it might sell its 40 per cent stake as a protest.

t Moscow (AP) - Just three weeks after being named first deputy prime minister, a young reformer has dashed past his rivals to become Russia's most trusted politician, according to a nationwide poll released yesterday.

Boris Nemtsov, the 37-year-old former governor of Nizhny Novgorod, was rated most trustworthy by 47 percent of respondents to a poll by the Russian Independent Institute for Social and National Problems (RIISNP).

Some 20 per cent said they didn't trust him and the rest were undecided, according to the poll, conducted in the first week of April. This showed a significant jump from the institute's last poll in December, in which only 34 per cent of respondents said they trusted him.