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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Press Looks Ahead to Life After Lesin

The official web site of the newly created Federal Press and Mass Media Agency, still located at its old web address (www.mptr.ru), made for interesting reading last Thursday evening. At 6:45 p.m., a report was posted on the site titled "Press Ministry Liquidator Appointed." A number of "liquidation updates" followed in short order. 6:48: "Mikhail Seslavinsky Fired." 6:49: "Press Ministry Plans to Celebrate Joke Day," a report stating that the ministry will begin handing out pink slips on April Fools' Day. And finally at 6:52, an article reporting that Seslavinsky, now head of the Federal Press and Mass Media Agency, will be compensated for unused vacation days accumulated at his "old" job.

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The following day the tone of the headlines was once more dry and official. But those seven minutes of freedom Thursday made clear that people in the old Press Ministry are reacting to the wholesale changes affecting them with a healthy dose of irony. In a way this makes sense. The new culture and press minister, Alexander Sokolov, began his tenure by announcing that he was dissatisfied with the coverage of cultural events in the mass media. In other words, the professor of music theory and former rector of the Moscow State Conservatory still relates to the media as a consumer of information, and a highly specialized one. Rarely do you meet specialists who are happy with media coverage of their particular field.

I see no point in drawing far-reaching conclusions based on the new minister's initial statements, however. I just hope that his new team doesn't roll back the forward progress made by his predecessor, former Press Minister Mikhail Lesin.

Lesin's main achievement was convincing both the regime and the media community to start looking at the media as a business. The former minister knew firsthand how the extremely untransparent media system really works. On Lesin's watch, the conditions for development of the media's market sector improved, and at the same time the ministry imposed no drastic changes in the rules of the game. Radical reforms could have caused the largely nonmarket mechanisms within the media sector to collapse, with serious social consequences for everyone involved. At times Lesin demonstrated exceeding tolerance of certain clearly anti-market enterprises, as the saga of NTV, TV6 and TVS television bears out. At the same time, Lesin sincerely believed that the engine of media reform should be the media community itself. One of his main initiatives as minister was to spur self-organization and self-regulation within the industry.

Lesin's past in the private sector always cast a certain pall on his achievements as minister. He was a founder of the Video International advertising agency, the monster that nearly monopolized the television advertising market. The agency also had major holdings in the production and broadcasting sectors, and made inroads into the print press as well. Within the media community, Lesin had a reputation as "minister of his own business affairs." As a result, his efforts at media reform were regarded with suspicion.

I am nevertheless inclined to give Lesin a positive assessment for his job performance in a difficult period of transition. His emphasis on building the economic base for a truly independent mass media cannot be reversed. Monopolies tend either to collapse under their own weight or to crumble when strong new players emerge in the market.

What will life after Lesin look like? Sokolov seems to have made his cultural priorities clear. Seslavinsky is market-oriented, but unlike Lesin he is a classic government functionary. He is respected within the media industry, but not feared. One big question mark remains: We still don't know how the old Press Ministry's functions will be divided between the Culture and Press Ministry and the Federal Press and Mass Media Agency. The agency's web site now features "Agency News," but the sections "About the Agency" and "Structure" are totally empty.

Alexei Pankin is the editor of Sreda, a magazine for media professionals. [www.sreda-mag.ru]