MEDIA WATCH: Center Targets Local Media

A couple of weeks ago, Deputy Press Minister Andrei Romanchenko made headlines when he told a conference in Moscow that the law on the mass media should be amended to allow the government to withdraw the license of any foreign broadcaster that, in the opinion of the government, adopts an editorial position that is hostile to the interests of the state.

What caught my eye about this incident was the reaction of former Press Minister Mikhail Fedotov. "[W]hen I was press minister, the ministry could not make such pronouncements," Fedotov said, "? because such statements were anti-constitutional."

Lately, it seems that many ideas that just a short time ago were literally unspeakable are now floating out of the government, apparently in an effort to see just how much "dictatorship of law" the country will swallow. Last week, to take another example of which way the wind is blowing, the Press Ministry's press secretary, Yury Akinshin, told Itogi magazine, "The law on mass media was passed 10 years ago. It is one of the most liberal laws in the world and, in a number of aspects, certain provisions of the law need to be amended." Does Akinshin mean that it is time to make this "liberal" law even more permissive?

In this context, an article that appeared in the May 31 issue of Boris Berezovsky's Nezavisimaya Gazeta is particularly frightening. Under the headline "We Must Deprive Governors of Power Over Minds," Igor Lisinenko, a Duma deputy and the deputy chair of the chamber's Property Committee, lays out a terrifying strategy by which the Kremlin can "use [freedom of speech] to strengthen its influence" in the regions.

Lisinenko notes correctly that local governors have nearly monopolistic control over local media and that this control enables them to maintain political power and, in many cases, to pursue policies independently of the Kremlin's wishes. Many regional leaders shamelessly use their media to shift blame for all misfortunes from local leadership to the center. In this way, state control of the media stimulates the centrifugal forces pulling the regions away from Moscow.

However, Lisinenko's solution to this problem is for the Kremlin to take control of the situation directly, and he even lays out several ways of accomplishing this goal. None of his suggestions have anything in common with democracy or market reform, so far as I can tell.

One solution, Lisinenko suggests, is to identify "opposition" media in key regions that are already in conflict with local authorities. Ominously, Lisinenko merely says that "the Center can support them in the widest possible range of ways." It doesn't take much imagination to interpret this as anything from direct financial support to infusions of kompromat supplied by the security services. Clearly, though, the purpose of such "support" is to ensure loyalty to the Kremlin, not the independence of the local media.

However, Lisinenko notes that this strategy is inefficient and time-consuming. The more direct approach would be to vastly increase the power of central media while, at the same time, increasing Kremlin control over that media. Lisinenko claims that "the mass media presently controlled by the Center are far from sufficient for the purpose of dominating the regional information market." He therefore proposes that the Kremlin enlist the support of the nonstate central mass media; that is, although Lisinenko doesn't say so directly, the Kremlin should help the oligarchs push their media into the regions in a joint campaign against local politicians.

He calls for the "establishment of control by central mass media over the regions" and for giving Moscow media "a green corridor for expansion into the regions by, possibly, establishing a credit system for such media projects, which can be done without even using budgetary funding." The way I read this, Lisinenko is saying that, in exchange for media monopolies in the regions, the oligarchs will be willing to both support the Kremlin and foot the bill (most likely through "credits" arranged by oligarch-controlled banks).

All of this, Lisinenko urges, can be done under the guise of a Moscow-driven "campaign to defend freedom of speech." Given a little time and the nod from President Vladimir Putin, Berezovsky is prepared to do for the regional press what he has done for ORT. And all in the name of freedom of speech.

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