MEDIA WATCH: Best of the Worst for Press




In keeping with tradition, the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists released its annual "Enemies of the Press" list last week to mark World Press Freedom Day. Almost immediately, the Russian Union of Journalists announced plans to create a Russia-only analog of this list, drawing public attention to local and national officials who are doing their utmost to prevent the establishment of freedom of the press here. Reiterating the results of a national study of press freedom conducted last year, Union General Secretary Igor Yakovenko noted that "89 individual political regimes have been created, each limiting freedom of speech in its own way."


Yakovenko also mentioned the Press Ministry as a prime potential candidate for a spot on this list, stating that "the Press Ministry was obviously created as a ministry of propaganda" and expressing the hope that it will be "reorganized" now that the elections are behind us.


At the same time, everyone has been scrutinizing President Vladimir Putin's every gesture in order to determine what the future holds. I am no exception, and my attention was drawn to an article in Izvestia on April 27, listing 12 regional leaders who had been awarded medals by Putin for their distinguished "service to the fatherland" and for their "significant contribution to the social and economic development of their regions."


As it turns out, although Yakovenko will have a tough time whittling his list down to just 10 enemies of the press, he might start by considering Putin's distinguished state servants; there, for example, he will find the name of Krasnodar Governor Nikolai Kondratenko.


Kondratenko's tireless work developing his region has been well-documented. Last year, a report by the Moscow Helsinki Group and the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews listed Krasnodar as the leading region for "nationalism, anti-Semitism and authoritarianism." The Krasnodar region is "the most infamous region when it comes to state-supported extremism," the report reads. The region "has become the saddest example of the installation of a regime of extreme xenophobia and ethnic discrimination in a major Russian region. Without a doubt, the major factor is the head of the administration, Nikolai Kondratenko."


According to the report, Kondratenko's definition of "enemies of the people" extends to "all activists in the democratic movement, journalists from the nationwide electronic media, and anti-Communists ... . [A]ll opponents of the governor are classified as enemies of the people." The governor's odious regime is shamelessly supported by his near total domination of the local media.


Also among Putin's laureates is the president of Karelia, Sergei Katanandov. Katanandov made headlines last summer, as he occasionally does, because of his efforts to take over the independent daily Severny Kurier in Petrozavodsk. Acting through local businessmen, the administration made concerted efforts to buy up employee-held shares in the paper. According to a Radio Liberty report last July, this effort was "a part of the executive authorities' bid to gain control over all mass media in the republic - a mere 20 percent of which have managed to retain their independence."


Although the effort to take control of Severny Kurier apparently did not succeed, the results that Katanandov sought were achieved. An independent report produced by the National Press Institute last fall said the following about Severny Kurier: "In regard to local authorities, the paper is extremely cautious. Its coverage is characterized by extremely modest evaluations, most likely not because of a desire to maintain a 'centrist' position but because of a fear of making a mistake. The journalistic potential of the paper is at a catastrophically low level, mostly because of the unfortunate situation created in the newsroom as a result of the 'war for share-control.'"


Although I do not live in Petrozavodsk, I am a regular reader of the city's remaining independent paper, the weekly Gubernia. Like many nonstate regional papers, Gubernia was virtually silent during the presidential election campaign, fearing the draconian law on press coverage of the elections. Since then, however, the paper has been relentless in cataloging election violations that occurred throughout the region, including many cases of budget funds being used to get out the vote for Putin. The horse, as the saying goes, is already out of the barn, but, unfortunately, documenting the escape is all the regional press can do at present.


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