MEDIA WATCH: Dangerous 'Rules of Game'

Scandals, crises -- Russia has way too many of these things, right? Wouldn't things be a lot better if we could just sit down and talk things through, reach compromises and get on with our business?

Much hope, for instance, was placed on last week's closed-door meeting between President Vladimir Putin and the country's most powerful oligarchs. This meeting was supposed to relieve tensions between the government and the business community and to help establish "rules of the game." Oligarch Vladimir Potanin revealingly told the Financial Times, "[The Kremlin] should tell us what to do next. Many oligarchs are tired of the lack of well-defined rules and are waiting for the Kremlin to define the guidelines."

I am alarmed by the tried-and-true practice of conducting fundamental political business in this way. This kind of round table has very little to do with the rule of law or even the "dictatorship of law." Instead, it smacks of arbitrariness and, well, oligarchy f "a government in which a small group exercises control especially for corrupt and selfish purposes." Although such meetings may indeed avert some impending crisis, I think that stability and development would often actually be strengthened by the experience of going through such crises and resolving them openly through the courts and, if necessary, improved legislation. There is an inherent contradiction in the idea of trying to establish "rules of the game" in such a secretive and arbitrary fashion.

I dwell on this because I have seen the same tactic used time and again to resolve media-related disputes. I cringe whenever I hear that a government official at any level has had a closed-door meeting with anyone in the journalism community.

Take just a few recent examples. Earlier this year, Mayor Yury Luzhkov's private television station, TV Center, was in trouble with the Press Ministry and faced the prospect of losing its license. It will be recalled that a few quiet meetings between Luzhkov and Press Minister Mikhail Lesin defused the crisis. Luzhkov got to keep his channel and who knows what Lesin got.

On July 6, it was reported that ORT "journalist" and board member Sergei Dorenko had met with Putin. He entered the Kremlin concerned about the state of the media and emerged miraculously convinced that the president represented no threat to freedom of the press in Russia. This "journalist," though, did not report on what was said.

During the presidential election campaign this spring, Putin met several times with editors of the regional press behind the Kremlin walls. Several of the regional papers that I read mentioned that such meetings occurred, but they reported nothing about what took place, which is very odd because the regional press rarely gets opportunities of this sort. Instead, they tended to publish photographs of the editor standing next to Putin and handwritten "best wishes" from Putin to the paper's readers. Other papers did not report these meetings at all, although I know from other accounts that their editors participated.

The latest example, of course, was the sudden release of Media-MOST owner Vladimir Gusinsky and the dropping of all charges against him. No one knows why the prosecutor had such a sudden change of heart, but there is certainly plenty of reason to fear the worst f that some sort of pernicious compromise has been made.

In the regions, conflicts arise all the time between the authorities and the press. Generally, they raise a certain amount of alarm at first and then mysteriously fade away. If you call the editor involved, he or she is likely just to say that the issue has been "resolved." No one seems concerned with the fact that resolving conflicts in this way is like paying ransoms to kidnappers.

No doubt impressed by the success of the oligarch round table, Igor Yakovenko, the general secretary of the Russian Union of Journalists, told radio Ekho Moskvy last week that he believed Putin should convene a "representative forum of journalists" at the Kremlin in order "to resolve all the problems between the authorities and the mass media." This suggestion is truly alarming. The idea that, to use Potanin's words again, "[the Kremlin] should tell us what to do" is frightening enough in reference to the aluminum or oil industries. In reference to the media, it means abandoning even the pretense of democracy.

Robert Coalson is a program director for the National Press Institute. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of NPI.