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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

What TV Could Be

You can’t measure chaos." This thought often occurs to me as I observe the lively debate around the state of press freedom under President Vladimir Putin. "This is a frontal assault on freedom of speech by the security organs," say some. Others retort, "We’ll never be able to create a liberal economy until we rein in the oligarchs and their media organs."

"Media-MOST is the first victim of a new repression!" shout the alarmists. "MOST owner Vladimir Gusinsky is bankrupt, just trying to cover his inept business skills by hiding behind a mask of demagoguery!" respond their opponents.

"The Kremlin is always talking about strengthening the state media and this means that fair competition is impossible," says one. "The government has maintained all the old privileges of the media and has even increased the tax deduction for advertising," comes the response.

Taken separately, each point of view seems perfectly correct and can find a mass of evidence to support its case. But taken all together, there is no way that everyone can be right.

Ever since the days of glasnost, the Russian media have devolved to the point where it is impossible to apply any objective criteria to them in order to assess the state of freedom of speech here. If we are speaking purely of opportunities for self-expression, for instance, then Russia long ago attained or even surpassed the level found in developed democracies. But the majority of journalists have not learned to take either moral or professional responsibility for their words and deeds.

The same can be said for pluralism. The number of daily newspapers in Moscow alone is nearing 30 (compared with four in New York), although few of them can be said to be financially self-sufficient. The press is regulated not only by laws — and it isn’t that important whether the laws are good or bad — but also by the constantly changing needs of the federal and local authorities. Those needs come and go, but the media structures created to satisfy them remain and consume both money and freedom of expression. Even the private media have grown up in an unhealthy symbiosis with the state that makes Thomas Jefferson’s famous dictate — that it is better to have newspapers without a government than a government without newspapers — inapplicable in Russia.

You can spend eternity slogging around in this absurd quagmire: Exerting efforts to attract foreign investors into the media sector while at the same time frightening them away. Building up a civilized media market with one hand while tearing it down with the other.

Unfortunately, as hard as it is for libertarians like myself to admit, there is no escaping from this chaos without the leadership of the government.

Assume for the moment that we believe Putin when he says that he intends to create civilized economic conditions for the media. Assume further that an analysis of the government’s actions over the last year leads one to conclude that the general direction of state policy heads toward this goal. Let’s even assume I am ready to admit that the media outlets currently controlled by the oligarchs are primarily just weapons for extorting the state and that, therefore, it is inevitable that the state will have to bring pressure to bear upon them.

Even given all these assumptions, there must still be one more piece of the puzzle before I will be convinced. Putin must formulate some very specific and tangible goal, the realization of which would demonstrate his commitment to liberal principles — not just in regard to the economy, but in relation to political liberty as well. The transformation of the present state television into genuine public television could be just such a project.

State television, as it has evolved during the reign of former President Boris Yeltsin, is the shame of Russia. For one thing, it is not even "state" television, but "presidential." Its senior managers are appointed unilaterally by the president. There are no guarantees of editorial independence. Managers are not even appointed to pre-set terms, but serve merely at the president’s pleasure. There is no oversight board that could potentially represent at least the interests of the state (as opposed to those of the president.) This situation may well be the central systematic violation of the principle of press freedom in all of post-Soviet Russia.

Second, the active involvement of Russian State Television — a budget-supported media organization — in the advertising market is something that is incompatible with any model of a market economy. The uncertainty caused by the combination of insufficient budgetary funding and the lack of transparency in advertising revenues is simply a classic recipe for corruption.

So, state television is a relic of the Yeltsin epoch. Public television, in contrast, is an essential part of the media landscape of any normal democratic country. If Putin announced his plan to transform our state television into real public television, then that would be a crucial positive signal both to his supporters and his opponents, both here and abroad. If he announced a state policy of "propaganda disarmament," then his assault on the oligarch’s media holdings would be seen in an entirely different light.

Moreover, the very process of creating public television would do much to rationalize the entire process of building Russia’s media sector. And if that work were carried out openly and publicly, then the widespread public discussion would occupy those mighty intellectual forces that are now doing nothing but crying over their lost liberties.

Alexei Pankin is the editor of Sreda, a monthly magazine for media professionals. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.