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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Stricter Rules for Press in Putin's White House

Reporters have been allowed to wander around the White House as they pleased for the past 16 years -- with the exception of the fifth-floor area around the prime minister's office.

But the rules have changed in the weeks before Vladimir Putin moves in as prime minister.

Reporters are now confined to a fifth-floor pressroom, where they wait for one or more ministers to show up after Cabinet meetings every Thursday. The reporters also can visit an improvised cafeteria down the hall for free tea, coffee and sandwiches or the nearby bathroom.

A plainclothes Federal Guard Service officer keeps an eye on them, making sure that they don't wander off too far. A White House press service employee is on standby, ready to escort departing reporters to the ground-floor exit.

Asked what would happen if a reporter strayed away, a Cabinet spokeswoman in the pressroom said, "You'd better not do that for your own safety."

The changes at the White House are not aimed a suppressing information but at bringing its standards for reporters in line with those in the Kremlin, another Cabinet spokeswoman said.

"These are the rules that Putin is used to in the Kremlin," said the spokeswoman, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she wasn't authorized to comment on the issue.

While the Kremlin has opened up under Putin by making a spokesman available for comment at almost all hours, it has developed a reputation for keeping a tight lid on all information and preventing leaks. The same kind of secrecy could now shroud the Cabinet, leading to a lot of double-guessing about what is going on, some reporters said.

"All this was done to control information rather than disseminate it," said Vera Kuznetsova, who has written on Cabinet affairs for Vremya Novostei since 1999. "They want to put all journalists under their control."

The new rules, announced to Cabinet pool reporters when they accompanied Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov to Slovakia on April 3 and 4, also canceled the right of journalists from newswires and major newspapers to enter the White House at any time between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. Separate accreditation is now required for every meeting or event that reporters want to attend.

The new rules have put a stronger filter on the flow of information, some reporters complained. The short news conferences that Cabinet members give after sessions are not enough to write in-depth stories about government decisions and policies, Kuznetsova said.

Rules for Reporters
Reporters will face tougher restrictions under a Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Here is an overview of how they have fared under previous prime ministers.
Viktor Chernomyrdin (1992 – 1998): Journalists allowed to sit in on Cabinet meetings.
Sergei Kiriyenko (1998): Reporters' access to the Cabinet meeting room restricted.
Yevgeny Primakov (1998 – 1999): Reporters barred from the Cabinet meeting room, allowed only to watch broadcasts of speeches by individual ministers on closed-circuit television.
Vladimir Putin (1999): Broadcasts on closed-circuit television limited to opening remarks by prime minister. Briefings organized at the end of Cabinet sessions to talk about Cabinet decisions.
Mikhail Fradkov (2004 – 2007): Broadcasts on closed-circuit television expanded to include first two issues on the agenda of Cabinet meetings. Ministers spoke to reporters in the pressroom or at briefings outside the Cabinet meeting room.
Viktor Zubkov (2007 – Present): Broadcasts limited to prime minister's opening remarks. Ministers who deliver key speeches at Cabinet meetings talk to reporters in the pressroom afterward.
-- Anatoly Medetsky

Journalists still manage to meet senior sources such as deputy prime ministers or their aides, but that requires not only their consent but also permission from the press service, Kuznetsova said. A press officer escorts the reporter to and from the meeting, she said.

At least one opportunity to meet high-placed officials vanished with the tightening of the screws on reporters' movements, said Igor Naumov, who has covered the Cabinet for Nezavisimaya Gazeta for the past four years.

When Cabinet ministers and lower-ranking officials walked out of the room where they meet every Thursday, Naumov sometimes waited outside to catch a quick comment, he said. In one case, he spoke with Vladimir Yakunin, chief of Russian Railways, in an impromptu interview, he said.

"It was the norm. No one restrained us," he said. "Now we don't see these officials."

Kuznetsova and Naumov said they did not abuse the rules by freely navigating the building to pay unsolicited visits. "I am a well-bred person, and I don't go where I am not invited," Kuznetsova said.

Another veteran reporter shrugged off the more stringent rules, saying he would always find a way to contact his sources. He spoke on condition of anonymity and declined to speak further on the subject.

Under Zubkov, the Cabinet previously took another step away from openness, banning closed-circuit television broadcasts from Cabinet sessions in October.

Some of the most liberal rules for the media were in place when Viktor Chernomyrdin was prime minister in the mid-1990s. Reporters were then allowed to sit in on the weekly Cabinet meetings.

In what could be an effort to make up for the latest restrictions, the Cabinet's press service has made a duty officer available from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. to answer reporters' questions. The duty officer's e-mail has the extension, an acronym that stands for the Administration of the President of the Russian Federation.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who will become deputy chief of staff in Putin's Cabinet, stood by the new rules, saying they would not hamper reporters' work under Putin as prime minister. Putin is expected to be confirmed as prime minister on Thursday, the day after Dmitry Medvedev is sworn in as president.

"Putin during his term as president demonstrated unprecedented openness with the press," Peskov said. "This dialog and transparency will be continued."

Peskov's near round-the-clock availability as Kremlin spokesman has given reporters unprecedented access to the Kremlin.

The new rules, Peskov said, simply brought the Cabinet's security up to that of the offices of news organizations. "If I, as a press secretary, were to try to walk into a newspaper's office, I would not be able to do that at any given moment," he said.

Andrei Lapshov, who served as deputy chief of the Cabinet's press service when Putin was prime minister in 1999, noted that reporters still had the opportunity to meet their sources in cafes or on the street.

"There's no ban on officials talking to the media so far," said Lapshov, president of the public relations company Insiders.

In addition, individual ministries remain as open as before, and reporters can build more contacts and seek more information there, Lapshov said.

But he conceded that the new rules could lead to more wild guesses about the Cabinet's plans. "Perhaps there will be more rumors," he said.