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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

An Autumn of Disillusionment

The freedom of speech orgy in Russia has come to an end," presidential aide Sergei Yastrzhembsky announced last week. Yastrzhembsky, the Kremlin's chief spokesman on Chechnya, was speaking in Yekaterinburg at a seminar on relations between the mass media and the state.

A day later the presidential administration information department, which Yastrzhembsky runs, announced that President Vladimir Putin had revoked a decree issued by Boris Yeltsin in August 1991 that gave U.S.-funded Radio Liberty special legal status.

An orgy of svoboda, or freedom, and a radio station named Svoboda. A neat coincidence, you have to admit. I'm sure that my colleagues in the press will have a field day with that little pun, not to mention the comedians.

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I found Yastrzhembsky's pronouncement to be anything but amusing, however. I'm not so much concerned about Radio Liberty as I am about the Russian mass media. In his Yekaterinburg address, Yastrzhembsky, who is still regarded as the Kremlin's chief PR person, expounded on a number of issues that more properly come under the purview of the Press Ministry -- government support of the media, and the education and training of journalists.

"We have a huge shortage of qualified journalists trained to meet today's standards," Radio Liberty quoted Yastrzhembsky as saying. "It has been proposed to create permanent media-training centers in the capitals of the federal districts, and that these centers be overseen by Media-Soyuz, the presidential information department, [state-owned television and radio company] VGTRK and Itar-Tass."

Government officials as a rule don't encroach on someone else's turf without permission from upstairs. So has the Kremlin information department been given a mandate to oversee the mass media? Yes it has, as a highly-placed administration official confirmed to me recently. In fact, the information department assumed this function about six months ago. As often happens, no official announcement was ever made. Yet, seasoned Kremlinologists did not fail to note that two years ago it was Press Minister Mikhail Lesin who traveled to Novosibirsk to open a television station covering the Siberian Federal District called Sibir. Now it's Kremlin information chief Yastrzhembsky who goes on an inspection tour of another district television station, Yermak, in Yekaterinburg.

Now think back six months. In April and May the Russian-American Media Entrepreneurship Dialogue was in full swing. In June a major conference was held: "The Media Industry: Directions for Reform." Putin met with media industry executives and delivered a welcome, well-reasoned message about the need to ensure the freedom of the press by bolstering its economic independence. Lesin told the independent media a fairy tale about how the government was going to pull out of the media market, by which he meant two things: the creation of a level financial playing field for the private and state-owned media, and his ministry's ceding of certain functions to the media industry's self-regulatory bodies. The minister even spoke of public television.

Many in the media industry were almost ready to believe him. But the spring of hope passed without results, then the summer, and in the fall we realized that yet another government agency had been tasked with steering the press, primarily by means of the state-owned media outlets VGTRK and Itar-Tass. At the same time it was to promote creation of federal district-wide media holdings, much to the delight of the presidential envoys. If anyone else has been delighted by the creation of these new holdings, I certainly haven't heard.

It's great to know that the free market is at work and that trust in the government is being strengthened! And that the road to liberalization in our country remains inscrutable.

Alexei Pankin is the editor of Sreda, a magazine for media professionals (www.internews.ru/sreda)