MEDIA WATCH: Media Crackdown Is Here

I have to confess that I am frustrated. Not only because I have been witness to the unrelenting erosion of press freedom across the country for nearly a year now, but because so few people seem to see what is happening as a clearly defined process, rather than as a series of isolated events that may or may not indicate a trend. If I had a dollar for every time I have been asked the question, "Does this event signify the beginning of a crackdown on press freedom in Russia?" then I could afford to hire a lawyer for a newspaper in Ivanovo that is fighting off a dozen libel suits.

This question arose last summer when then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin created the new Press Ministry and named Mikhail Lesin to head it. Lesin never hid his intention to dramatically increase control over the media by the central government. The next time the crackdown "began" was when the Kremlin took complete control over the flow of information from Chechnya, introducing restrictions on journalists that were widely decried by media and law experts as blatantly unconstitutional.

The crackdown began again during last year's parliamentary elections, during the Andrei Babitsky affair, during the presidential elections, during the controversy over licensing for TV Center and ORT and f most recently f during the Media-MOST/Gusinsky scandal. Lesin has already announced that his ministry intends to require newspaper publishers to obtain licenses in the near future, and there can be little doubt that these new restrictions will be heralded widely as "the beginning of a crackdown on the media in Russia."

Enough already. It's time to stop speculating about whether there is going to be a crackdown and to start acting as if there is one. What is happening now is a fundamental test of democracy here, one that this country cannot afford to fail. In recent months, the journalistic and human rights communities have tried virtually all means of expressing their concern. They have not once but twice banded together to produce special editions of Obshchaya Gazeta devoted to the subject of press freedom. They have issued innumerable letters of protest, held demonstrations, published outraged articles from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok and appealed to every international organization that would listen.

In short, they have taken every symbolic measure that could be taken, and there is no indication that they have achieved anything. It is time to do something more concrete and to make a more serious effort to win public support. After all, the present struggle is not really between the state and the independent media, but between the state and society itself. The real question is whether the media will be reduced, as they were in Soviet times, to mere instruments of state control over public opinion or will they become, as they should be in an open society, tools of public control over abuses of state power?

I would therefore urge the Union of Journalists and other organizations to call for a total nationwide boycott of the state-controlled media, from national television like ORT and RTR to local subsidized newspapers and broadcast media. We should urge the people to force the government to work exclusively with nonstate journalists to convey its policies to the nation. We should urge advertisers to publicly withdraw their ads from state-subsidized media. Such measures would convince the Kremlin that the public intends to defend its rights. They would convince the Kremlin that the democratic transition here has proceeded far enough that public opinion can no longer be so contemptuously ignored.

Moreover, activists should assist the nonstate media to inform the public about the dangerous role that the state-controlled media is playing at present. The public should know exactly how much of its tax money is spent to bring Kremlin PR hacks like Sergei Dorenko and Mikhail Leontiev into their living rooms every night to tell them how to think. The public should know how many health clinics or trolleybuses could be purchased in provincial towns across the country with the money that is being used to subsidized state-controlled local newspapers.

Let's rally around a simple slogan: No Ads and No Audience for State Media. It is time the public started telling the Kremlin what to think.

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