Why Keep Spending Secret?

The nation took a big step backward this week in its off-and-on effort to become a modern, open society. When the government presented its draft budget for 2001 to the Duma, Article 113 was left blank, labeled "Top Secret." Article 113 is the budget line for federal funds distributed to the mass media at the discretion of the Press Ministry. According to Leonid Mayevsky, the chair of the Duma subcommittee on information policy, the only other part of the budget that is secret is the section relating to "the state program for military armaments."

Immediately, the media was full of speculation about what the secret funds would be used for (although Segodnya reported that a story on this topic was pulled from the news on state-controlled RTR). Some analysts even fantasized that the money may be used to install jamming devices to prevent Radio Liberty and other Western media sources from broadcasting in this country.

The most likely scenario, though, is the most prosaic: The money will be used to reinforce state control over state media, to offer big salaries to independent journalists in order to bring them into the state system, to distribute state funds to nominally private media without revealing publicly that they are under state control, and so on.

While activists have been working for years to increase transparency in the media sector, the government continues an unrelenting campaign to keep it deeply politicized. The media scene reminds me of the Elvis Costello song: "You can listen to the propaganda or you can listen to the latest slander." Thats what state subsidies to the media do.

It is very likely, I think, that the secret budget line contains massive funding for new media projects to be controlled by President Vladimir Putins seven new regional representatives. Most of them have, over the last couple of months, indicated they intend to vastly extend the scope of federal media control in their regions, lamenting the lack of a "unified information space."

In the northwest region, Viktor Cherkessov has announced he is creating a new television station under his control. In the Urals region, Deputy Valery Yazev, leader of the local chapter of the pro-Putin Unity Party, announced he was creating a new media company to counter that controlled by Sverdlovsk Governor Eduard Rossel. The flagship of this company will be a new newspaper called Uralskaya Gazeta. At a press conference, Yazev stated that the purpose of the effort was to support Putins regional representative, Pyotr Latyshev. "All across the country, the mass media are depicting the presidents representatives as enemies of the people," Yazev stated. "This must be stopped immediately."

This sad list continues. In southern Russia, presidential representative Viktor Kazantsev issued a statement on July 21. "We consider that a complex program for the creation of a unified information space in the southern federal region must be adopted in the near future. This program must include a precise formulation of its main priorities and a mechanism for its material and technical execution."

Obviously, such ambitious plans demand considerable resources. Building the original Soviet "unified information space" wasnt cheap; rebuilding it wont be any less expensive. In fact, it may be merely an understandable sense of shame that led the government to hide its media spending under the label "secret."

But I think we should consider what this secrecy really tells us about Putins government. This nations military spending level is most likely considered a state secret so as to hide the countrys capabilities from NATO and other potential enemies. Understandable enough. But NATO probably doesnt care how much Russia spends on media control. Here, the only excuse for secrecy is the desire to hide the information from the states other enemies the nations citizens. Neither the citizens nor their representatives in the Duma will be told how much is being spent on the weapons to be used against them.

This nation being what it is, though, the secret will no doubt come out soon. Maybe even some hero in the right position will risk the fate of Alexander Nikitin and Grigory Pasko and come forward with this secret. Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznyov and other leaders must know what figures stand behind the secrecy and what they are to be used for. Maybe some of them will live up to their obligations to their constituents instead of kowtowing to the president. That would be a small step forward.

Robert Coalson is a media analyst based in St. Petersburg.