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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Litmus Test

In a progressive society, the institutes of government are oriented toward realizing the rights and interests of that society's citizens. Not least among these must be the inalienable right of all citizens to have unhindered access to information. This right has been repeatedly affirmed by the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights and Basic Freedoms, the Helsinki conventions and still other international documents to which the Soviet Union and Russia are signatories.

Clearly, global opinion has coalesced around the idea that a progressive state must do everything in its power to create conditions in which the mass media can flourish. Most importantly, it must not interfere in the activity of the media, except in cases clearly defined by law and using means that are likewise explicitly defined by the law.

In contrast, in a totalitarian, anti-democratic state, the government expends all its efforts to secure its influence over the information content of the mass media. It strengthens the institutions of government-controlled media — which are themselves the most visible and characteristic attribute of any totalitarian state. Such a government will use all means at its disposal — legal and quasi-legal — to hinder the work of the private media and to limit the exchange of information that it does not control. It will jam foreign radio and fill its domestic airwaves with deafening propaganda and idiotic entertainment using media that it strictly controls.

Click here to read our special report on human rights.If we face facts honestly, we must admit that the authorities in Russia have absolutely nothing in common with the people of the country. The authorities today understand that any mass media not directly controlled by the state will only become a source of unbearably unpleasant truths. And those truths will only provoke the rabble against the authorities and, ultimately, will lead to the loss of their comfortable privileges.

In short, the attitude of any government toward the private mass media is a crucial litmus test: blue indicates totalitarianism and pink indicates democracy. Only totalitarian, anti-democratic governments whose interests have diverged far from those of the people they govern fear real freedom of speech and genuinely independent mass media.

Those who rule Russia today are by and large the same people who ruled the country under the auspices of the totalitarian and anti-democratic Soviet regime. They are the "new class" about which the Yugoslavian writer Milovan Djilas wrote in 1957. They were shaped by and within the communist bureaucracy and successfully mutated into "reformers," "democrats" and "free-market advocates." Nonetheless, they act just as they did in Soviet times, making decisions about things that they cannot possibly understand. And, in the true traditions of communist and fascist states, they spend their energies "forming public opinion" in their own, bureaucratic interests.

These people have taken control of property (factories, natural resources, etc.) that once belonged to the entire nation and they are managing this property as one might expect the "new class" to do — incompetently and in a way that is fatal for the country. At the same time, through the mass media they control, they are able to blame mythical democrats and reformers who never existed in Russia for all our woes. The result is that the very concepts of "democracy," "the market" and "reform" have become thoroughly discredited and even hateful to the average citizen.

I believe that as long as state-controlled media exist, as long as the government runs television, radio stations and newspapers, Russia will inevitably remain a totalitarian state. And if we continue to strangle the tiny seedlings of independent media that have emerged, such as NTV, we are simply speeding up Russia's journey to state-monopoly capitalism, a condition that is fraught with the looming danger of fascism.

In 1991, I had occasion to meet with the then-communications minister of Denmark. Denmark, of course, is a small country and so the communications minister must oversee many responsibilities including the post office, the telephone and telegraph system and, naturally, radio and television. As minister, he had a role in naming the directors of the country's two public broadcasting companies. Note, please, that I say "had a role" rather than "appointed."

The minister told me that the governments of all the Scandinavian countries had long come to the realization that independent, nonstate mass media "work to the benefit of the authorities." In such countries, the state works for the sake of its citizens while here, as in all totalitarian countries, citizens toil for the sake of the state. That is why our government needs citizens whose minds have been warped and distorted so that they think exactly as the state needs them to think.

That is why our government will tirelessly hound Media-MOST to recover its debts to the pro-state company Gazprom. That is why our government does not wonder why Gazprom — which is constantly complaining that it has no money for taxes, development, wages, etc. — can afford its massive "media holding." A holding which, I note sadly, is headed by Alfred Kokh, who was once lionized here in St. Petersburg as a model of the "new type" of Russian reformer, democrat and responsible leader.

Yury Vdovin is co-chairman of the St. Petersburg-based Citizens' Watch advocacy group, to which he contributed this comment.