Thoughts, essays, and writings on Liberty. Written by the heirs of Patrick Henry.

April 22, 2007

The Shackles Tighten In Russia

by Doug Mataconis

In another sign that the regime of Vladimir Putin continues to advance it’s plans to stifle freedom in Russia, the state is continuing to consolidate control over what’s left of the independent media:

MOSCOW, April 21 – At their first meeting with journalists since taking over Russia’s largest independent radio news network, the managers had startling news of their own: from now on, they said, at least 50 percent of the reports about Russia must be “positive.”

In addition, opposition leaders could not be mentioned on the air and the United States was to be portrayed as an enemy, journalists employed by the network, Russian News Service, say they were told by the new managers, who are allies of the Kremlin.

How would they know what constituted positive news?

“When we talk of death, violence or poverty, for example, this is not positive,” said one editor at the station who did not want to be identified for fear of retribution. “If the stock market is up, that is positive. The weather can also be positive.”

In a darkening media landscape, radio news had been a rare bright spot. Now, the implementation of the “50 percent positive” rule at the Russian News Service leaves an increasingly small number of news outlets that are not managed by the Kremlin, directly or through the state national gas company, Gazprom, a major owner of media assets.

This isn’t exactly like the old days of the Soviet Union, where all the media was state-owned and state-controlled. Instead, Putin appears to be engaging in something that more closely resembles fascism than communism:

“This is not the U.S.S.R., when every print or broadcasting outlet was preliminarily censored,” Masha Lipman, a researcher at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said in a telephone interview.

Instead, the tactic has been to impose state ownership on media companies and replace editors with those who are supporters of Mr. Putin — or offer a generally more upbeat report on developments in Russia these days.

The new censorship rules are often passed in vaguely worded measures and decrees that are ostensibly intended to protect the public.

Protect the public, of course, means protecting from bad news about the economy, or the truth about the autocratic tactics of the Putin regime.

Interestingly, though, the people are not necessarily going along this time:

“I want fresh morning broadcasts and not to fall asleep,” one listener, who signed a posting on the station’s Web site as Sergei from Vladivostok, complained. “Maybe you’ve tortured RNS’s audience enough? There are just a few of us left. Down with the boring nonintellectual broadcasts!”

The change leaves Echo of Moscow, an irreverent and edgy news station that often provides a forum for opposition voices, as the only independent radio news outlet in Russia with a national reach.

And what does Aleksei Venediktov, the editor in chief of Echo of Moscow, think of the latest news from Russia?

“For Echo of Moscow, this is positive news,” Mr. Venediktov said. “We are a monopoly now. From the point of view of the country, it is negative news.”

One wonders how long it will be before Mr. Venediktov gets a knock on the door.

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  • Steven Conn

    A few days ago small protests and demonstrations took place in Russia….as I
    followed the main western media outlets, I was surprised as it seemed that
    1,500-2,000 > 15,000-20,000.

    While over 15,000 (20,000 according to some reports) supporters of the current
    administration marched in Moscow and St. Petersburg, the western media gave
    almost all of its coverage to the by far smaller number of disgruntled
    dissidents. However:

    1. The dissidents were allowed to march but, in the horrendous traffic situation
    in Moscow, both the pro-government and the anti-government protesters were
    designated to some key streets and parks. The anti-government protesters,
    however, chose to deliberately march on the forbidden streets and to break
    through the police cordon. Why?

    2. Among the 1,500-2,000 protesters was the partially-outlawed National
    Bolshevik party. It is notorious for radical, revolutionary views, for breaking
    into government buildings and creating havoc and destruction, and for its
    Bolshevik-Fascist flag and insignia. Another anti-government participant was the
    former Prime Minister Kasyanov, a Yeltsin holdover who has earned a nickname
    –“Mikhail 2 percent” for the numerous kickbacks he had received after backstage
    corporate deals during Yeltsin’s tenure. These “democratic” leaders did not care to speak to constituents but studiously sought out western reporters – who had already written their stories I suspect – and spoke in English. Wow, talk about choosing the right audience to win elections!

    3. For some reason, one doesn’t read about the 15,000-20,000 demonstrators from
    the patriotic and youth NGOs like Nashi and Molodaya Gvardia. Among their
    demands is that President Putin stay for a 3rd term in a row…something which he
    has rejected.

    4. In 1993 President Yeltsin rolled out the tanks and ordered them to shoot at
    the Russian parliament – which they did as dozens of deputies died. The
    parliament had earlier refused to pass legislation for radical liberalization of
    prices, large scale privatization, and curtailment of state support for millions
    of citizens – harsh measures that the U.S. leadership called “reforms”. What was
    the American reaction to the bombardment of the parliament? Numerous “Russia
    experts” and the U.S. presidential team itself claimed that Yeltsin has a right
    to act forcefully to protect democracy!

    5. In Russia today, the overwhelming majority of people support president Putin.
    And those who are disgruntled for whatever reasons, can have their say and can
    protest – but in a civilized manner. Even the leader of the National-Bolsheviks
    – Limonov – has recently conducted a live interview on the popular liberal radio
    station Echo of Moscow. The former World Chess Champion, G. Kasparov – who was
    also among the dissidents at the march – claimed on television that his “basic
    rights have been violated”: he was detained for calls to break through the
    police cordon and move to unsanctioned streets, then he was fined. A true
    authoritarian regime!

    6. What the western media does not tell is that in Russia people remember and
    dread the Yeltsin times when in 1992-93 and 1998 savings were wiped out, the
    middle class severely undermined, salaries and pensions were held back for 3-4
    months on average while corporations and CEO’s laundered money into western
    banks, and Russia experienced a “capital flight” of $25-$30 billion dollars a
    year. Inflation ranged from 11% to 84% to 2,600% while the economy contracted by
    45% during the Yeltsin 1990s! Personal disposable incomes declined by 15%-20% on
    the average each year while 30-50 of the super-wealthy oligarchs held 25%-50% of
    the Russian GDP. Meanwhile, the U.S. government and media gave a generally
    positive opinion of the “reforms” even though Yeltsin’s approval rating sunk to
    around 5% in 1996 with the Russian people. President Putin has proceeded the
    other way by aiming to please the Russian people first and foremost and forego
    popularity in the U.S. In fact, besides the millions of Russians, some Russian
    senators and deputies from independent parties raised the question of having
    Putin remain for a 3rd straight term – which he again rejected.

    7. Under Putin, the economy has expanded by 68% during 2000-2007, personal
    disposable incomes have been rising on averaged by 10%-11% each year, salary and
    pension arrears have been reduced from $15-$20 billion to less than $1 billion
    while at the same time salaries and pensions have been rising. Personal income
    taxes, the unified social tax, and corporate taxes have all been reduced. Among
    the most popular projects is the “Mothers’ capital” – a program that gives
    $9,000-$10,000 of aid to mothers who give birth to their 2nd or 3rd child.
    Russia has gone from an international beggar – mostly at the discretion of IMF –
    to accumulating the world’s 3rd largest forex reserves and posting eight
    straight budget surpluses.

    8. “It is because of oil” – this is the only explanation given. However, the
    1990s had also witnessed years of increasing oil prices but to no avail for the
    Russian economy. Under Putin, reducing the tax burden, providing political
    stability, and improving the investment climate – a 10%-15% rise in foreign
    investment per year during 2000-2007, has also contributed to economic growth.
    In the financial sphere, during the 1990s, the government did not get a large
    share of the oil profits as the parliament’s tax committees and government
    agencies were under strong influence of the oil lobby – in fact via direct
    staffing of government institutions by the oil executives. After the 2003
    parliamentary victory of the pro-Putin block, however, a higher, graduated oil
    tax was introduced and oil export taxes were raised from the pre-2003
    $36-$45/ton to the 2004-2007 $150-$180-$200/ton. A more effective and a more
    popular leadership has in this instance contributed to an improved financial
    situation – it is a political as much as an “oil” achievement.
    Finally, there isn’t always a direct correspondence between a rising oil price
    and Russian economic growth: global oil prices rose from 2003 to 2004 and then
    again in 2005, but Russian economic growth declined from 7.3% in 2003 to 7.2% in
    2004 and 6.4% in 2005…higher oil prices contribute to inflation in Russia and a
    stronger ruble/weaker dollar, which hurts domestic manufacturers and helps
    imports – affecting economic growth.

    9. According to the latest survey, Russian citizens are most positive about such
    words as “order” (58%), “justice” (49%), “stability” (38%), “welfare” (37%),
    “freedom” (37%) “patriotism”(35%). http://www.rbcnews.com

    10. I remember thousands and thousands marching through Boston, and millions
    across the United States and U.K. against invasion of Iraq…thousands protesting
    the large-scale lay offs at Airbus plants in France and Germany, and several
    thousands Danes defending their lodgings from the police this year.

  • Jimmy Rollins

    The free press in Russia? You mean the one that is financed by the CIA or a swarm of “NGOs” or controlled by the local oligarchs? That’s press freedom for you. In U.S. we have press freedom as well – corporation control the press, the government monitors the corporations, journalists pay obeisance to political spin-doctors and state departamnet officals, the most primitive slogans and speeches by our leadership is republsihed accros hundreds of newspapers, but the horrors committed by US troops in their thousands are ignored.

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