Media freedom emerged as a major theme when senior Bush administration officials met with Russian President Vladimir Putin this spring. Public statements made after these meetings illuminate how little apparent understanding there is of the depth of Russian press repression and the decidedly undemocratic status quo that exists in that country today.

In April, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice traveled to Moscow for what appears to have been a mostly upbeat meeting with Putin, as they talked about America’s strategic partnership with Russia in the war on terror and on nuclear nonproliferation issues. And while she criticized the Kremlin’s authoritarian policies in its crackdown on independent media, Rice also cautioned in her remarks that it was important not to isolate Russia.

After Rice left Russia, Putin dismissed her comments by telling Israeli television that “If this thesis is used exclusively as an instrument to implement one’s own foreign policy aims, an instrument of putting pressure on our country for the sake of reaching one’s own national interests, we will naturally ignore it.”

President George W. Bush’s February meeting with Putin in the Slovak capital of Bratislava followed a similar script. In a strained press conference after the meeting, Bush emphasized the “constructive and friendly way” in which he expressed his concerns about the Kremlin’s growing authoritarianism. For his part, Putin grimly denied that there are media restrictions in Russia. Speaking “absolutely frankly,” he said, “we and I, in particular, do not think that this has to be pushed to the foreground, that new problems should be created from nothing.” Putin also asserted that he was “not the minister of propaganda”—forgetting, perhaps, that during the past four years national broadcast media has been consolidated under Kremlin authority. Independent television stations have been shuttered by the government or swallowed up by pro-government businesses.

Broadcast Media in Russia

The state gas monopoly Gazprom carried out a hostile takeover of the national television channel NTV in April 2001. After NTV journalists moved to TV-6 to continue their independent reporting, that station was closed by court order in January 2002. When the journalists moved to yet another station, TVS, the Press Ministry yanked that channel off the air in June 2003.

The country’s remaining national television channels—state-run Rossiya and Channel One, along with NTV—have revived the old Soviet approach to news reporting, focusing heavily on Putin’s daily meetings with his cabinet and international leaders. These major national television stations portray Putin as a decisive leader and a stabilizing force while suppressing information about the war in Chechnya, incompetence in the security services, and the government’s legal assault against the oil giant Yukos. Perhaps his treatment by the press was related to a January 2004 meeting when Putin summoned influential television executives to the Kremlin to direct their coverage of his reelection campaign. By spring, the Kremlin had purged national television of its few independent-minded journalists and current affairs shows.

The Kremlin has responded to recent foreign criticism over its restrictive media policies with a feeble public relations campaign meant to demonstrate media independence. This February, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a U.S. television reporter that the controversy was merely the result of a media campaign and that he was preparing a CD-ROM with Russian press clippings to prove to Secretary Rice that Russia has a free press.

Dangers to Journalists and Journalism

Rather than preparing a multimedia presentation, Lavrov should call Russian Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov and ask him why law enforcement officials have failed to solve 11 contract-style killings of journalists during Putin’s tenure. Many of these murdered journalists were trying to provide critical, in-depth coverage of the widespread government abuses that plague Russian society. The system-wide failure to prosecute their killers has intensified self-censorship throughout Russian media and has virtually halted important investigative reporting.

The foreign minister could also meet with officials from United Russia, the pro-Putin party that dominates Parliament, to inquire about a series of highly restrictive media, terrorism and visa bills currently being drafted that will make it easier for the Kremlin to enforce press censorship. These measures would make it far easier for diplomats to ban critical foreign journalists from entering the country and would provide media regulators with greater latitude to censor news reporting on terrorist attacks.

The foreign minister could also contact Federal Security Service (FSB) director Nikolai Patrushev and ask him about a broad campaign of persecution against journalists reporting on the brutal war in the southern Russian republic of Chechnya. Authorities in the Volga River city of Nizhniy Novgorod recently charged Stanislav Dmitrievsky, editor in chief of the independent monthly newspaper, Pravo-zashchita, with seeking to overthrow the government after the paper quoted Chechen rebel leaders calling for peace talks in articles it published last year.

In some instances, security forces have even manufactured criminal cases to silence journalists reporting on the war in Chechnya. In August, a dozen FSB agents in North Ossetia raided the home and office of Yuri Bagrov, a local reporter for The Associated Press. Bagrov was convicted in December of forging a document to receive Russian citizenship and fined 15,000 rubles ($540). His passport was also invalidated, he said, making him vulnerable to deportation as a convicted criminal. Journalists were convinced that authorities prosecuted Bagrov to stop him from reporting on politically embarrassing information, such as military casualty figures.

In some cases, journalists were silenced through more subtle means. Raf Shakirov, editor in chief of the leading daily Izvestia (News), was forced to resign after Kremlin officials, angered by the paper’s coverage of a hostage crisis in the southern town of Beslan, pressured the daily’s pro-Kremlin owner, Prof-Media. Izvestia had published graphic photographs of the hostage crisis and was one of the first to criticize the government for misrepresenting the number of hostages.

Putin’s Press Policies

Perpetuating this harsh reality—while publicly denying it—has been a priority for the Kremlin ever since Putin came to office in late 1999. The former KGB agent launched a two-front war as he took office. He sent Russian forces back into the southern republic of Chechnya under the guise of an “antiterror” operation, while at the same time he tapped government agencies at the local, national and international level to crack down on independent news reporting. The Kremlin’s information war involved a two-fold strategy of restricting access to the war zone while punishing independent reporting on a broad array of government abuses.

Six and a half years later, the Kremlin’s apparatchiks continue to rely on a multipronged campaign of lawsuits, bureaucratic obstruction, crude intimidation, and hostile corporate takeovers to silence the president’s few remaining media critics. In an example of one such corporate takeover—with this intent—in April, news emerged that the state-owned Evrofinance Mosnarbank and a foreign partner were negotiating to acquire a majority stake in REN-TV. At this influential Moscow-based television station, news programs have remained relatively independent, despite its ownership by the state electricity monopoly, UES.

The Kremlin and its allies broadened their informal censorship of news programs from national television stations to some of Russia’s regional ones. This change in policy was an effort to keep growing public discontent with some of Putin’s policies—welfare reform and the elimination of gubernatorial elections, for example—off the air toward the end of 2004. Officials from the pro-Putin United Russia Party and other senior politicians pressed these TV stations not to air protest footage that would harm the president’s image.

The strengthening of the centralized Soviet-style news media management is commonly referred to as telefonaya prava, or “law of the telephone,” in which bullying calls from the presidential administration or local governors act as a covert substitute for the rule of law. In a broader historical sense, some analysts have described Putin’s authoritarian policies as a reconsolidation of conservative Soviet-era officials who were demoralized by the Soviet Union’s collapse but remain committed to reestablishing an authoritarian political order. Their prospects for doing so were bolstered by public discontent with the political and economic chaos of the 1990’s.

While Putin has also stacked the federal and regional governments with former military officers and security agents, the Kremlin public relations machine has insisted that all is well when it comes to media freedom in Russia. And during the past several years, representatives of the Committee to Protect Journalists have participated in several meetings at the Russian embassy in Washington, D.C., in which diplomats eagerly have pledged cooperation while simultaneously denying the existence of media abuses.

For President Bush, the inability to get Putin to back off from his assault on Russia’s independent press raises questions about the effectiveness of coddling an authoritarian leader without setting minimum standards of conduct. Some foreign policy analysts and journalists have warned that the Bush administration’s focus on short-term military and economic cooperation with the Kremlin might one day jeopardize stability of Russia and Eurasia. The absence of an independent press to watchdog government corruption, to investigate organized crime and police torture, as well as the trafficking that goes on in narcotics, weapons and humans, virtually guarantees that these serious problems will not be addressed by Putin and his allies.

Some members of the U.S. Congress—apparently frustrated by Putin’s denials and Bush’s soft-pedaled criticism—have called for harsher measures. Senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman have introduced a resolution seeking Russia’s suspension from the G-8 group of leading industrial democracies until Putin demonstrates his government’s commitment to democracy, including freedom of the press. While it is true that largely symbolic protests from the West have not had much effect in slowing the process of press repression going on in Russia—and actions like this one might achieve what words can’t—there appears little likelihood that such a suspension will occur. But without such measures linking Russia’s conduct with the press to international sanctions being tried, it is unlikely that the environment will change in a positive way for Russian journalists who yearn to report on the news without government interference.

Alex Lupis is the senior program coordinator for Europe and Central Asia at the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

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