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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

MEDIA WATCH: Luzhkov's Agitprop Empire

It was recently reported that Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov has convinced the State Property Ministry to let the Moscow city government gain control of the Moskovskaya Pravda printing press. Pretty bad news, in my view: Luzhkov is clearly using his political clout to give an unfair advantage to the media holding he has been building lately in anticipation of the 2000 presidential election.

The media holding so far includes the TV Center television channel and the newspapers Rossia and Literaturnaya Gazeta. None of these has any particular influence or can boast commercial success. But, as Kommersant Daily pointed out; "By election time Yury Luzhkov will be in control of a powerful media holding, despite experts' earlier skepticism about it. The control of Moskovskaya Pravda, apart from the ability to print his own publications (and also posters, leaflets, etc.), will give the mayor the ability to control other people's publications."

Among "other people's newspapers" Moskovskaya Pravda prints Moscow's most popular daily, Moskovsky Komsomolets, and the feisty and independent-minded weekly Novaya Gazeta.

There are many situations in Russia's regions where governors make printers refuse to work with opposition publications. The case of Sovietskaya Kalmykia Segodnya, barred by Kalmyk President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, is one example that had extreme consequences: the newspaper's editor persisted in smuggling her publication into the republic and later got killed. The suspects, now under arrest, were linked to Ilyumzhinov.

Something as ugly as that is hard to imagine in Moscow; but Luzhkov does have a clear tendency to try to control what the press writes about him.

Take his recent spat with the daily Segodnya over its comments on a recent gas explosion in a Moscow apartment block, in which several people were killed. Segodnya remarked that the mayor was quick to blame the accident on one of the dead. Segodnya's editor, Mikhail Berger, immediately received a letter from Luzhkov's chief spokesman, Sergei Tsoi, threatening to sue the newspaper for defaming the mayor.

"Despite the existing agreement on cooperation between your publication and the Moscow mayor's office, Segodnya continues to publish articles containing statements that smear ... Luzhkov and the city government he heads," Tsoi wrote.

Luzhkov's spokesman clearly believes there can be some kind of a non-aggression pact between a newspaper and the mayor. Quite rightly, Berger fears things may get worse if Luzhkov decides to run for president and gets elected. "The heightened sensitivity shown by the mayor's aides gives rise to fear that [under a President Luzhkov] the freedom of speech may be replaced by a freedom to express approval of the authorities," Berger wrote in a front-page reply to Tsoi's letter.

Berger makes no discovery when he says Luzhkov's press people openly divide media into two camps: those friendly to the mayor and those hostile to him. To be considered friendly, a newspaper or television channel has to praise Luzhkov. Not criticizing him is insufficient.

A few years ago, The Moscow Times had an extremely dedicated and energetic city reporter, Ann Barnard. She spent her entire tenure at the newspaper writing about city life and trying to get an interview with Luzhkov. She coped admirably with the first task; on the second, she ran into a stone wall. She left Moscow without once meeting the mayor face-to-face. The Moscow Times is clearly not seen as a friendly newspaper. Neither are, for example, Kommersant and Segodnya.

What kind of future awaits these newspapers under President Luzhkov? That, I think, is a question that causes legitimate concern.

Earlier this year, Luzhkov received the Silver Archer, a prestigious award established by the Russian Public Relations Association, as "PR Personality of the Year." "There is probably no public figure who would combine working for state interests with building his own image as smoothly as Luzhkov does," Igor Pisarsky, one of the Silver Archer competition's judges, was quoted by Sovietnik magazine as saying.

Pisarsky may well be right because Luzhkov does get results with his PR strategy: Ninety percent of Muscovites voted to elect him mayor in 1996. But I am sure a lot of journalists would disagree with Pisarsky's ringing endorsement: What works for the public does not necessarily have anything to do with democracy, freedom of speech and all these old concepts in which we still try to believe despite everything.