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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Press Controls Still in Force

One might expect that in a country where, by my best estimate, at least 80 percent of the media is controlled by the government, there would be a fairly consistent line regarding the coming elections. However, even a glance shows that the press vaguely reflects the fragmentation of Russia's political scene. Superficially, this gives the appearance of pluralism, but a closer look shows that, by and large, the press is as thoroughly manipulated as it ever was in Soviet times.

Consider, for instance, the recent scandal over the Press Ministry's shutting down Petersburg Television after it aired a sarcastic report about a rally held by the political movement Right Cause. The report was produced by a company controlled by Duma Deputy Aleksander Nevzorov, who also happens to be the personal media advisor of St. Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev. Yakovlev, of course, is a leader of the new political alliance around Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov that is viewed to be a significant threat to the Kremlin.

Nevzorov doesn't hide his contempt for journalism and the public. He was recently quoted in this paper as saying, "I advise [Yakovlev] about how to use the press more efficiently. I try to explain to him how to use our biased press." So it is no surprise that the municipally controlled Petersburg Television came up with this slam of a movement made up largely of Kremlin allies.

Likewise, it's not surprising that the Kremlin-controlled Press Ministry cracked down. Press Minister Mikhail Lesin has stated that he thinks it is his job to "force the media to take into consideration the interests of the state." So, cloaked in the armor of "defending the public's right to receive information," Lesin shut down Yakovlev's mouthpiece.

This act merely stimulated the defenders of the free press in Yakovlev's camp (including Nevzorov) to cry "censorship!" The St. Petersburg Union of Journalists even appealed to the federal prosecutor, asking him to file criminal charges against Lesin for his action. The union nobly declared that Lesin "blatantly violated" the rights of local citizens to receive information. It is probably just a coincidence that the chairman of the St. Petersburg Union of Journalists, Igor Sidorov, actively supported Yakovlev in his surprise election victory over former St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak in 1996 and that the union receives support (albeit not much) from the municipal budget. In short, all of the media and even those who one might hope would be defending the interests of the press and society are caught up in the kaleidoscope of political intrigue. It is surely a far cry from the kind of analysis and information that people need in order to vote reasonably.

Here is another, much less scandalous but far more typical, example of how the press is participating in the elections. In the Leningrad region, which surrounds but does not include St. Petersburg, elections for governor will be held next week. The regional town of Kingisepp, one of the largest towns in the region with a population of about 85,000, is served by a newspaper called Vremya, which is the only daily in town and is controlled by the regional administration. Like all newspapers that receive funding from the public budget, Vremya is obligated to provide free space to all candidates in the election - and in this election there are more than 30 of them.

Since the paper publishes only two 12-page issues each week and since it must print whatever advertising it can muster because its subsidy certainly does not cover all the paper's costs, you can imagine how much space remains for real journalism, for impartial information, for informed analysis. The paper's Aug. 25 issue, for instance, contains four full pages of "articles" and "interviews" provided by candidates, two pages of lists of candidates and polling places, a television schedule and two crossword puzzles. That's about it, except for a strange feature about the founding of the Smithsonian Institution in the United States that most likely was pulled off the Internet.

The subservience of the media to politics is as strong now as it was in Soviet times; only the monolith of political ideology has been shattered. The situation issurely different, but is it really any better?

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