Russia’s Free Press Withers Away

President Vladimir Putin is neither a butcher nor an anti-liberal. He is not even an anti-Westernizer. He speaks German fluently (being the first Russian leader in almost eighty years to command a foreign language, if we disregard comrade Stalin, who spoke Russian) and is said to be studying English. Putin is confident that market reforms are necessary for Russia. And he tends to think that democratic institutions are somehow indispensable for the economy to flourish. For him they probably seem like wigs, which are ubiquitous in British courts although their relation to justice remains obscure.

Putin’s KGB past reveals itself in his strong beliefs that every problem has only one solution, that there is only one view of what is good or bad for Russia. By this standard, any dissenting view is anti-Russian. Hence his attitude toward the mass media. Heis ready to tolerate having this “wig” on his head, but he seriously doubts whether there is a point in having his skull sweat beneath it.

When the independent television station and other mass media began to criticize Russian policies in Chechnya in early 2000, Putin was infuriated. He decided that enough was enough. In March 2000 the Russian president read his first annual address to the members of the Russian parliament. What he said sounded like a threat: “Sometimes…media turn into means of mass disinformation and a tool of struggle against the state.” The Doctrine of Information Security issued by the Russian government several months later made it clear that state-owned media must dominate the information market.

Putin made himself even clearer in his speech to the relatives of sailors killed on the Kursk submarine. He had been venomously criticized in the press and on television, and he was angry and frustrated. “Those journalists and their masters who are in the first ranks of critics today are those same people…who destroyed the Russian state, the army, and the navy,” he said.

To Putin, Media MOST, the media empire owned by the tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky, appeared especially “anti-state.” In that empire the central component was NTV, the only privately owned nationwide TV channel in Russia. Putin’s goal was to squelch Media MOST, take NTV under government control, and destroy the evil mogul. The question was how to do it.

The first post-Communist years were years of freedom. It may be argued whether this was exclusively owing to Boris Yeltsin’s commitment to liberal values, or whether journalists, just as Yeltsin did, saw the greatest danger for Russia in a Communist comeback, and encouraged mutual support between the president and the press. Or perhaps the state was so weakened that it could not defend itself against an unfettered press and television.

Anyhow, those ten years of freedom and openness to the world were not in vain. Putin was concerned that he look enlightened and democratic; and therefore his government would not resort to rough, straightforward methods. He would not ban publications, take broadcasting licenses away, or impose censorship. Putin did not…

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