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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'Free-Speech Tourism' Enjoying a Boom

No sooner had the international conference "The Power of the Press and the Pressure of Power" concluded than I was called away to St. Petersburg to another international conference, "Russian Journalism: Relations with Owners and the State." When I got back to Moscow, I found an invitation on my desk to yet another international media conference scheduled for mid-March.

Russia has become the progenitor of a new type of tourism -- let's call it "freedom-of-speech tourism" -- whose heady growth has been driven by vigorous support in the Russian and foreign press. Human rights organizations have also contributed by painting an apocalyptic picture of the repressions unleashed on free speech. During their stay here, the free-speech tourists are herded to huge gatherings of a fairly stable cast of characters, some of whom maintain that conditions for journalists here have become intolerable, while others affirm that the press is moving steadily in the direction of normal market relations. When they return home, these travelers share their impressions of what they have seen and heard and tell of the heroic struggle being waged. Along the way, they give shape to the image of Russia as an ideal destination for free-speech tourism.

Business is booming. It's so good that the established tour companies, such as the Union of Journalists, are facing competition from upstarts like the Union of Right Forces.

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Today's freedom-of-speech travel agencies have a special fondness for President Vladimir Putin. At the Union of Right Forces' conference, for example, Boris Nemtsov thanked the president for making the conference possible by his handling of NTV and TV6. This sort of thing would never have occurred to anyone during the Boris Yeltsin years.

But Putin is probably not capable of appreciating such expressions of gratitude. He most likely believes that he has done more in his brief tenure to bring relations between the press and the state in Russia into line with Western norms than his predecessor did in a decade.

Is he correct in this belief? Judge for yourself.

Yeltsin controlled the press like an autocrat. He stripped broadcasting frequencies from functioning state-owned companies by presidential decree and doled them out to private companies. The sovereign, that is, transferred crown property into the hands of the vassals who had won his favor.

When the new sovereign ran into trouble with his predecessor's favorites, he chose to litigate. This move was inherently absurd, as you cannot use legal means to regulate a situation that arose outside the law. You might as well challenge the decision of a mob of thieves in court. Nevertheless, from May 2000 to January 2002, the Kremlin patiently went through the motions of observing democratic norms and humbly bore the public abuse that followed.

Why did Putin bother, you might ask? After all, Yeltsin had already legitimized the quick, radical solution to these sorts of problems -- by decree.

I suspect that the new Kremlin, spooked by the absence of serious opposition, decided to construct a system of checks and balances on its own. This would explain the choice of the least effective means possible for achieving its end.

You would think that the West would be overjoyed that Russia's eccentric, absolute monarch has been replaced by a predictable, constitutional monarch. And that it would take a neutral stand in the conflict between Russia's modernizing government and oligarchic television industry, which bears about as much resemblance to a free press as the atomic bomb bears to the peaceful use of atomic energy. Nothing of the sort. The West and our native "democrats" have taken the side of Yeltsin's vassals. From the perspective of free-speech tourism, the struggle to hang on to the remains of feudalism obviously seems a fascinating endeavor and one that provides a particularly powerful thrill.

Alexei Pankin is the editor of Sreda, a magazine for media professionals (