CPI: Russia Media - A dead man still walking (Y.Albats)
- Russia Media
A dead man still walking
By Yevgenia Albats
WASHINGTON, January 31, 2005 — On Friday, Sept. 3, 2004, a hostage
takeover crisis in one of the eight schools in Beslan, in the southern
Russian province of North Ossetia, ended up with at least 350 hostages
out of 1,200 dead. More than 170 of the dead were children ages three
The following day, Izvestia, a Moscow-based national daily with a
circulation of about 235,000, came out with extensive coverage of the
tragedy, including page-sized photos. The kiosks which sold the
newspaper showed one of the photographs: an Ossetian man holding a
wounded girl in his arms. The issue sold out in a matter of hours.
Readers expressed their grief openly. You could see them crying in front
of the kiosks as they looked at the pictures.
"We did what American newspapers did after the events of 9/11," said Raf
Shakirov, then the editor of Izvestia. "People were shocked [after
Beslan], they looked for human-touch stories, and we did what we felt
was right to do."
Not everyone in Moscow felt the same way. President Vladimir Putin, for
one, purportedly saw the page-size pictures of the dead children and
"went berserk," according to several sources. "This is a betrayal!" he
said, tossing the paper. The president, a long-time employee of the KGB,
the Soviet Union's political police, apparently used the coded
vocabulary—words like "betrayal," "traitors" and "enemies"— which had
made the KGB infamous. The Kremlin, which many Russians blamed for the
disastrous outcome of the hostage crisis, was eager to do damage-control
and took quick action. That very Saturday—within hours of the newspaper
hitting the stands—Raf Shakirov was forced to resign.
Shakirov is no dissident. He ran Izvestia as a balanced, mainstream
newspaper (which had never openly criticized Putin) and is respected in
the journalistic community as one of the most professional newspaper
editors in the country. But few in that community believe he has any
chance of staying in the business. To be labeled a "traitor" by the
president himself means nothing less than what Russians call a "wolf
ticket"—banned from practicing the profession in current Russia.
Others have received such a ticket. Just a few months before Shakirof
was forced to resign, Leonid Parfenov, a prominent TV personality and an
anchor of the popular weekend analytical show, Namedni, was fired after
the broadcast of an interview with the wife of a former Chechen
separatist leader, Zelimkhan Yandarbiev, who had been assassinated in
Qatar by Russian agents. According to media reports, some unnamed
officials in the FSB (the successor to the KGB) were vehemently opposed
to the interview. Parfenov ended up complying with the demands, but he
made the case public—and got fired nonetheless.
"Parfenov is too talented and stands too [far] out of the generally
obedient-to-the-Kremlin television crowd," says Anna Kachkayeva, a
professor at Moscow State University's School of Journalism and a TV
critic with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a U.S.government-financed
broadcaster with headquarters in Prague. "He is hard to run and he is
too unpredictable." None of the major networks, which are all-but-owned
either by the state or by state-affiliated companies, are eager to
invite trouble by hiring a prominent, but controversial, television
journalist, she adds. Parfenov, however, was hired as the editor in
chief of Russian Newsweek, published by the German publishing house Axel
Still, many observers in Moscow believe, Shakirof's case signifies a new
stage in the Kremlin's war against the media: The state wants nothing
less than full and total control over the media—just as it did in the USSR.
Two factors are fueling this fear. One is that the circulation of the
national dailies is far too small to have an impact on a nation of
almost 145 million citizens, which stretches across nine time zones.
Whereas the state-owned Channel One reaches about 97 percent of
households nation-wide, a typical national daily is hardly available
anywhere outside the major cities. It can hardly claim to in any way
damage Putin's high popularity ratings (which ranges in the vicinity of
The second reason for pessimism is that, although Izvestia has never
been considered an opposition newspaper, even a slight deviation from
the official line of coverage of the Beslan tragedy was enough to get
its editor into trouble.
A tale of a seizure
It is worth remembering that President Putin started his assault on the
media shortly after he was elected into the office in March of 2000.
Three months later, in June, the then-owner of the Media-Most
conglomerate, Vladimir Gusinsky, who opposed Putin and supported his
competitors during the presidential elections, found himself in jail. At
the time, Media-Most controlled a large segment of the national
information market, which included a major TV news network—NTV—several
cable channels, a daily Segodnya (Today), a weekly political magazine,
Itogi (Conclusions), as well as some other outlets. Gusinsky was
released from jail three days later under a deal that became known as
"freedom for shares"—the media mogul gave up control of the company to
the state-affiliated monopoly Gazprom in exchange for his freedom.
Later, after departing for the West, Gusinsky denounced the deal, and
last year the European Court in Strasbourg confirmed the illegality of
the state actions against him. Nevertheless, in April of 2001, the gas
monopoly Gazprom abruptly fired the NTV management, forced its key
anchors and reporters to walk out of the company, closed the newspaper
Segondia, and fired the entire news room of the Itogi magazine. Since
then, Media-Most at large ceased to exist.
Those reporters who were forced to quit the network in 2001 managed to
resume its news operation on a small channel, TV-6, which was closed in
a dubious court deal a few months later, in January 2002. They then
started another company, TVS, in an alliance with a group of prominent
Russian entrepreneurs, only to be forced to close shop less than a year
later. On June 22, 2002, Mikhail Lesin, then the head of the Ministry
for the Press, Radio and Television Broadcasting, and Mass
Communications, ordered that TVS's broadcasting be cut off, thereby
bankrupting the fledgling.
NTV itself, which is now fully owned by two state-controlled entities,
Gazprom and the bank Eurofinance, had by 2004 totally lost much of its
news coverage and become just another mouthpiece for the Kremlin. Its
last live political talk-show was shut down last July—no surprise there.
The title of the show was Freedom of Speech, an idea that no longer
existed in Russia.
Another large nation-wide network, formerly known as ORT (Public Russian
Television), which was partially state-, partially privately owned, came
under full Kremlin control sometime in 2001. How the deal came about
remains murky. What is known is that one of ORT's former owners, the oil
and media baron, Boris Berezovsky, found himself in exile in London (he
was ultimately granted political asylum by the British in 2003), while
his partner, Roman Abramovich—the owner of the oil giant Sibneft and
currently Russia's second richest man, according to Forbes—acquired
Berezovsky's interest in ORT. Then, in what appears to have been a
sweetheart deal, Sibneft gained exclusive export rights from the
state-owned oil company, Slavneft, and the state got control of the
network. ORT changed its name to Channel One, and public television, as
one which reflected the views of the citizens rather than those of the
ruling elite, was dead.
The Death of News
The Kremlin's seizure of the nation's two biggest networks was reported
on in the domestic and international media as if it were Putin's war
against the Russian nouveau rich—the oligarchs—who acquired their wealth
during the turbulent years of transition in the early- to mid-nineties.
And indeed there is little doubt that oligarchs played a significant
role in the corruption of the media. They did use their power to
influence and blackmail the government. Yet, it is now clear, the
diversity of their business interests, which ranged from oil and metals
to banking and information markets, at least allowed for a plurality of
opinions in Russian media.
Granted, it was hard for an investigative reporter, including me, to
find a venue for his or her work. But after contacting two, three,
sometimes even four newspapers, I always managed to find one willing to
go for the story, which then would usually find its way into the news
lines of the nation's networks and broadcasts. That trick of squeezing
in investigations worthy of public knowledge was only possible because
big businesses were hardly ever united or had a common agenda. In fact,
they regularly were at war with each other. No longer: The Kremlin,
which has under its auspices all five nation-wide television networks
(compared to two when Boris Yeltzin was president) and controls about 90
percent of all national media as opposed to 56.7 percent in 2000,
behaves like a tightly controlled corporation that brooks no dissent.
Take, for example, the two privately owned television cable channels:
STS, which is roughly 75 percent-owned by StoryFirst Communications, and
DTV, which was acquired by the Swedish Modern Times Group. Neither
carries any news. Even during the Beslan tragedy, neither channel dared
to mention a word about the case that shocked the nation. The same was
true for much of the print media. Even though there are some 41,000
different registered print outlets in the country (compared to 27,000 in
1998), which account for $2.5 billion in yearly sales, very few of them
dare to carry any political news. They've chosen, rather, to focus on
celebrity gossip or on sex-related issues. "How to obtain an orgasm" is
the most popular headline—this in a country in which about 20 percent of
the entire population lives below the poverty line.
One small cable network, REN-TV, does have regular and decent news
coverage. But there's a rumor afloat that REN-TV will be sold off to the
state-owned bank Eurofinance, which also owns part of NTV. Eurofinance
is connected to the so-called chekists—former KGB employees and
colleagues of Putin's. The goal, sources believe, is to get rid of any
uncontrolled news coverage in the country, as well as to ensure a
politically unchallenged and uncontested status-quo for the ruling elite.
Further fueling that fire are recent powers the government has assumed
that influence state-owned media. Late this summer, Putin signed a
decree listing the major Russian television networks as "companies of
strategic importance" to the Russian state. The list of 1,000-plus
companies, a majority of which are national security-related,
state-owned firms, prohibits privatizing any part of the companies
without the president's personal permission.
In another similar Kremlin ruling, which has never been made public, the
nation's major newspapers and publishing houses (including the daily
Izvestia and the tabloid editions of Komsomolskaya Pravda, which have a
combined daily regional circulation of more than 25 million, and a
widely read weekly tabloid Argumenti I Facti) were classified as
publications of strategic importance to the state, and therefore cannot
be put up for sale without Kremlin approval. In February 2003 the
Kremlin reportedly may have nixed a proposed merger between Independent
Media, a Holland media group that is the biggest publisher of glossy
magazines in Russia, and the Prof-Media group, which owns, among other
publications, Izvestia and Komsomolskaya Pravda, because the government
feared the presence of foreigners on the board of the country's biggest
The Russian government has put in place other measures to weaken the
press, punish non-compliant journalists and publishers, and reward those
who toe the Kremlin line.
Each Friday, for example, top managers and editors of the major
Moscow-based networks and newspapers are summoned to the Kremlin for a
meeting. These gatherings are like throwbacks to the old briefings by
the Department of Propaganda of the Central Committee of the Communist
Party in the seventies and eighties. Their purpose is to tell editors
how the news ought to be covered in the media. For instance, the war in
Chechnya no longer exists to the electronic media or major print
outlets, even though civilians and soldiers alike are still dying in the
separatist republic almost every day. Instead the public is saturated
with reports about the restoration of peaceful life in Chechnya, such as
the opening of a gym in the capital, Grozny, which, judging by
independent reports, looks like a ghost city, where people disappear
Such coverage, however, comes with a reward. Unlike reporters and
editors of the independent outlets, those nourished by Kremlin get the
newsmakers, of which President Putin is key, as well as access to
members of the cabinet on a regular basis. In contrast, reporters from
outlets not favored by the Kremlin have a very hard time getting into
any governmental office. Bureaucrats refuse to talk to them. They are
not invited to background talks. They have to wait months—IF EVER—to
obtain public record documents from an agency. Because they don't have
access to the newsmakers, their organizations lose ad revenue—just
another way that the Kremlin maintains economic pressure on those it
In fact, the advertising market in Russia has been heavily monopolized
and run by one company—Video International—with close ties to the
Kremlin. Its founder, who is still believed to be closely connected to
the company, is Mikhail Lesin, who served as Minister for the Press,
Radio and Television Broadcasting, and Mass Communications until March
of 2004, and who currently holds a position as Putin's advisor on
media-related issues. Is it any wonder, then, that the Kremlin's
favorites have been the biggest recipients of ad revenue (20 percent of
all advertising revenue go to state-owned networks), while those who are
not struggle to survive?
Another way the state has found to help its own is through its taxing
policies. The government of Boris Yeltzin exempted independent
newspapers and other print media from the value added tax. That's no
longer the case. Two years into Putin's presidency, the media were made
to pay 10 percent in VAT; next year, the rate will go up to 18 per
cent—the same as other commercial enterprises in the country. However,
state-owned media and others favored by the state may enjoy tax
exceptions, which may be granted to them by local authorities at the
The pressure on independent media occurs in every sphere. For instance,
Echo Moskvi, a talk-radio group that resembles National Public Radio and
has a weekly audience of 750,000 people in Moscow and a similar number
in the provinces, pays 30 percent more for its signal transmission and
twice as much for copyrighting than does any state-owned broadcaster.
No wonder, then, that the U.S.-based Freedom House, which has tracked
trends in media freedom worldwide since 1980, in 2004 listed Russia as
Even so, a close analysis of trends in Russia suggests that Freedom
House was over-optimistic in its evaluation. A chart I compiled from
Freedom House data clearly shows that since 2001 Russia has been
creeping closer and closer to dictatorships like North Korea, which the
organization ranks as least free. Russia currently ranks a six on
Freedom House's seven-point ascending scale measuring political
repression, placing it over the threshold the organization assigns for
the least free countries.
To be fair, the state is not the sole source of press intimidation.
Frequently enough, private owners—fearful of Kremlin scrutiny and
anger—all too readily impose constraints on their own.
Consider the business weekly Kompaniya. Shortly after the tragedy in
Beslan, the largely non-political magazine published an article called
The End of Putin. Intellectually Powerless Executive Is Unable to Make
the Nation Secure and Prosper. I spoke with Andrei Grigoriev, the editor
and an author of the piece, who immediately got a call from the
magazine's major owner, the National Reserve Bank, run by a former
Soviet spy and current member of the State Duma, Alexander Lebedev,
asking him to resign. Grigoriev refused, claiming his founding and
ownership rights. The NRB then suggested he buy out the bank's rights in
the magazine—at a price the magazine can not sustain and may well run it
into bankruptcy. Lebedev and NRB did not respond to my requests for an
Of course, when political and economic intimidation doesn't work,
reporters who refuse to comply with the Kremlin may find their lives at
risk. The Russian press, along with organizations that track press
freedoms such as the Committee to Protect Journalists, have reported the
numerous incidents in the past few years of threats, harassment,
assaults, abductions and killings of Russian journalists who report
critically on the government. Elena Tregubova, an author of the national
bestseller, Stories of the Kremlin's Digger, which detailed some of the
Kremlin's under-the-carpet deals, barely escaped with her life when an
explosive blew up near the front door of her apartment. Yuri
Shchekochikhin, once a famous reporter with the Novaya Gazeta and a
liberal member of the State Duma, was not so lucky. In 2003 he
mysteriously died while working on articles on the wrongdoings of a
company with ties to then-top FSB (successor to the KGB) officials and
the 1999 series of bombings officially pinned on Chechen terrorists.
Friends and colleagues, though they suspected poisoning, were unable to
determine the true cause of his death. Shchekochikhin's medical records
were classified and requests for samples of his hair, made while he was
still alive, were refused. Many Russians also believe that a poisoning
attempt was made on the life of Anna Politkovskaya, another reporter
with Novaya Gazeta, who has been covering the war in Chechnya since
2000, this September while she was on her way to cover events in Beslan.
Overall, as many as 15 reporters have been killed in Russia in recent
years, including Paul Khlebnikov, an American reporter and the Editor of
Russian Forbes, who was killed in Moscow in July of this year. His case
is still unresolved.
Yet some Russian journalists keep fighting on. A decade of freedom
wasn't entirely in vain. Still, the Russian media are in critical
condition, as close to death as they were under the old Soviet regime.
Russians like to joke that they are like "that dead man who is still
walking." The media do still walk, but barely.
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