Medvedev Slammed for Airtime Monopoly

The current presidential election campaign has not differed much from previous ones, as the overwhelming majority of television coverage has gone to the Kremlin's choice candidate, a report from a media monitor to be released Thursday says.

Legal changes introduced by the United Russia-controlled State Duma in 2005, meanwhile, and the general lack of transparency in the legal and administrative systems, have further entrenched the advantages enjoyed by those in power by denying opponents fair coverage.

The report presents the findings of a study by the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, which analyzed the coverage afforded the four presidential candidates in prime time -- from 6 p.m. to midnight -- from Feb. 2 to Feb. 25.

First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev clocked 17.3 times more airtime on NTV than that combined for the other three candidates -- Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Democratic Party head Andrei Bogdanov.

The equivalent numbers were 5.5 times on TV Center, 4.2 on Channel One and 1.8 on Rossia. Ren-TV provided more-or-less balanced coverage, offering almost equal airtime to all candidates except Bogdanov, who received about one-third of the coverage afforded the others.

The contents of the report, an advance copy of which was provided to The Moscow Times, were in line with other studies of the same issue.

There were 1,832 references to Medvedev on national television in a study covering all time slots between Dec. 10, when he was singled out by President Vladimir Putin as his preferred candidate, and Feb. 26, according to the Medialogia think tank, which focuses on the Russian media.

In the meantime, other candidates have received much less attention. Zhirinovsky was mentioned only 533 times, Zyuganov 479 and Andrei Bogdanov 258 times.

Like the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, Medialogia monitored only federal television channels: Channel One, Rossia, TV Center, NTV and Ren-TV.

Election law calls for equal access to media for all candidates. The national television channels are the main source of information for an overwhelming majority of Russians.

Medvedev's decision not to take part in televised debates has not hurt his on-screen time, which has been a total of 84 hours and 33 minutes, according to the report. Zhirinovsky received about a third of this, with 29 hours and 36 minutes of coverage, Zyuganov was a bit further behind, at 24 hours and 45 minutes, and Bogdanov received just under 15 hours of coverage.

Medvedev's dominance on the airwaves decreased in February, but there were still more references to him on television than to all the other candidates combined, according to Medialogia.

Challenged several times by Zyuganov's campaign officials and by journalists over the lack of comment or action in the face of such a blatant slant in coverage, members of the Central Elections Commission stood by the conviction that Medvedev was covered not as a presidential candidate but as a senior government official doing his job.

Arkady Lyubarev, head of the monitoring department at the Independent Institute for Elections, pointed to a 2005 amendment to the election law allowing senior officials to run for office without taking leave from their official posts during the campaign period, as previously required.

"It is an abnormal situation now: Medvedev's work is shown daily, which is actually campaigning, but you can't prove that he was appearing as a candidate," Lyubarev said.

Tatyana Stanovaya of the Center for Political Technologies joined Lyubarev in saying that, without the established political reputation enjoyed by Zyuganov and Zhirinovsky, the extra attention was important to bolstering Medvedev's support.

Lilia Shibanova, executive director of Golos, Russia's major independent elections watchdog, pointed to the fact that debates and campaign ads for other candidates are largely shown during the daytime or early morning, when most viewers are either sleeping or at work. In contrast, reports about Medvedev are shown on prime time news programs.

By dodging debates and having his campaign portrayed as coverage of his work as first deputy prime minister, Medvedev has deprived the race of its essence -- political discussion -- Shibanova said.

Earlier this week, two Moscow courts threw out cases filed by Zyuganov's campaign demanding equal airtime on Channel One and Rossia. In both cases his campaign cited data from Medialogia.

Ostankinsky District Court Judge Alexander Bobrov ruled that the mere fact that all candidates had appeared on television meant they were receiving equal access, Kommersant reported Wednesday. Savyolovsky District Court Judge Tatyana Adamova has yet to disclose the grounds for her refusal of Zyuganov's claim.

n A freelance journalist cooperating with the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations and the London-based Institute of War and Peace Reporting has been accused by Russian authorities of working in the northern Caucasus illegally, IWPR said in a statement Wednesday.

Alan Tskhurbayev had his office in Vladikavkaz raided on Feb. 11 by local police, who seized his computer and documents. Tskhurbayev has rejected the charges against him.