MEDIA WATCH: Putin Needs to Speak Out

When Vladimir Putin ran for president this spring, he staunchly refused to commit to any specific platform or program. Instead, largely because he ran virtually unopposed in a country where the state controls an estimated 80 percent of the media, he campaigned solely on the image of himself as tough, practical and patriotic. A major element of this image was the idea that, unlike his ailing predecessor, Putin would be "engaged," "involved," "in charge" and generally responsible for what goes on in his administration. I think that a lot of Russians voted for Putin in hopes that finally this country would know where the buck stops.

That is why, I think, society should be unforgiving when Putin tries to sidestep responsibility and take refuge in the timeless traditions of hiding behind errant underlings or blaming forces beyond the government's control. Instead of spending time agonizing over whether or not Putin knew about the Andrei Babitsky case or the Vladimir Gusinsky case, we should be demanding that he take responsibility and speak out. Given the image of the responsible Putin that was so lovingly crafted during the campaign, it is ironic that the Russian Union of Journalists last week cited Putin as an enemy of the free press by criticizing him for silence and inactivity in defense of freedom under assault.

The contrast between Putin's campaign image and post-election reality seemed stark to me once again as I listened to his state of the nation address to parliament Saturday. His remarks on the media situation reflected a willfully unrealistic assessment of the situation and a pathetic attempt to blame the present problems on those few parts of the media system that are not presently under state control. Putin continues to maintain (and I believe he is the only one who thinks this) that freedom of the press has been achieved in Russia.

He further stated that "censorship and interference in the activities of the media are prohibited by law. The authorities adhere strictly to this principle." These claims are so absurd that it is hard to believe he could bring himself to utter them. To take just one example, just days before Putin's speech, his newly anointed representative in the Northwest region, Viktor Cherkesov, told journalists in St. Petersburg that he is creating a new state-controlled, tax-payer funded television station to cover his dominion and provide only "government-approved coverage" of the news. Perhaps Putin feels that this new station doesn't really count as government "interference in the activities of the media" since the state already controls virtually all television broadcasting in the region. Even residents of central St. Petersburg have to buy special antennas in order to receive NTV, to say nothing of the efforts that residents of Vologda or Ukhta must undertake to get nonstate news.

Since Putin is the only one in a position to lead the nation out of its media morass, the fact that he offers such an inadequate analysis of the problem offers little hope for the solutions he may someday propose.

I was also disturbed by Putin's comments that the owners of nonstate media had violated the "public trust" by using their media to promote their own political agendas. He said that they "use the mass media for squaring accounts with competitors and, sometimes, even turn them into mass misinformation outlets and into a means of struggle against the state." While there is certainly much truth to this statement, it nonetheless reminds me of the biblical injunction against worrying about the mote in your neighbor's eye while ignoring the beam in your own. Has Putin forgotten that only state-controlled television (ORT and Moscow's TV Center) was cited by Putin's own statist Press Ministry for "squaring accounts with competitors" and serving as "mass misinformation outlets" during the parliamentary elections last December?

If the experience of the last few years tells us anything, it is that the answer to the media problem in Russia is not further centralization and state-control. Elsewhere in his speech, Putin correctly noted, "Many of our failures are rooted in the fact that civil society is underdeveloped and the authorities do not know how to communicate and cooperate with it." This is the essence of the media problem in Russia and I see nothing in either Putin's words or the deeds of his administration to make me think that he is bent on solving it.

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