Writing in the Moscow Times Masha Lipman, editor of the Carnegie Moscow Center's Pro et Contra journal, condemns the Kremlin for recreating the Soviet media environment and insulating itself from all criticism -- just the thing that brought the USSR to its knees.
Although not all Russian media are controlled by the state, in the current political environment the remaining freedom does not make much difference. Put another way: There is still freedom of expression, but very little media freedom.
The Kremlin tightly controls the coverage of politically sensitive issues on national television channels -- to the extent that nothing unexpected or unpleasant for senior state officials appears on the screen. But print media are a separate realm. A number of high-quality mainstream dailies and weeklies still shape their own editorial lines. They rely on professional journalists who are able to get hold of important information that the government is anxious to hide.
To cite just a few examples, the print media published detailed accounts of the Beslan tragedy and the following trial, revealing lies and coverups on the part of law enforcement and security officials, as well as the practice of the Moscow City Court chairman of instructing her subordinates on how to rule on certain cases and the subsequent dismissal of those who didn't comply. They provided open coverage of the Yukos affair and the trial of its then-CEO, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and then documented the murky purchase of Yuganskneftegaz, formerly Yukos' major production unit, thus challenging President Vladimir Putin's claim that the transaction was a perfectly legal deal carried out according to market principles. They regularly report evidence of cronyism in appointments to high government posts.
The problem is, however, that evidence of questionable policy decisions or wrongdoing on the part of the government published in Russia remains largely irrelevant. It makes no more difference than samizdat did in Soviet times. It may inform those who want to know, but it has no effect whatsoever on government policies.
Just as democracy cannot be reduced to the mere casting of ballots and is virtually meaningless without viable institutions and public participation, press freedom cannot be reduced to being allowed to write or talk, or even publish news and opinion. Unless media are integrated into a network of democratic institutions and enabled to serve as an instrument that helps the public hold the government accountable, freedom to publish does not translate into press freedom.
Of course, unlike the authors of samizdat, Russian journalists generally do not run the risk of government persecution. Unlike the Soviet police state, today's government does not feel the urge to silence every discordant voice. The Kremlin's media policy demonstrates a high degree of sophistication and does not constrain minor pockets of freedom, such as the print media or broadcasters with small audiences, as long as the ruling elite remains assured that the public at large does not get too stirred up.
The emasculation of democratic institutions is only the most important factor neutralizing the nonstate media's ability to have an effect. Another powerful tool restricting media freedom is highly limited access to information. When a paper gets hold of what seems to be an important piece of information, there is no way to get a timely public response from the government. To cite just one of countless examples, no high-ranking security or law enforcement official has ever been made available to respond to questions regarding the numerous allegations that have been made about the bungled operation in Beslan.
Things like regular public briefings or news conferences by major decision makers simply do not take place. After Putin recently announced a new policy to boost birthrates in the country, neither he nor his spokesmen were available for public comment. There is no way to ask what results the measures are expected to deliver or how soon. Nor is there a chance to ask anybody in charge whether it is true, as the weekly newsmagazine Vlast reported last week, that state-owned oil company Rosneft violated its contractual obligations to the budget of the Nenets autonomous district and owes this region almost $37 million. Or what ever happened to those people who were unlawfully arrested by allegedly corrupt law enforcement officers, labeled "the werewolves in epaulettes"? Or how did it happen that thorough audits of Yukos repeatedly failed to reveal any wrongdoing on the part of the company, but then it was suddenly charged with tax evasion to the tune of billions of dollars? What does Putin, or Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov, for that matter, think of serious questions from some of the best economic minds in Russia about the wisdom of current economic policy? What does Putin think about the corruption case against former Nuclear Power Minister Yevgeny Adamov? Or about lingering corruption allegations against IT and Communications Minister Leonid Reiman?
The questions are endless and crop up in every sphere of life. Any professional journalist can list them by heart. Those who know what to ask, however, don't get the opportunity. Those who do have the opportunity simply don't ask. In one of the most glaring examples, a television correspondent interviewing Federal Security Service chief Nikolai Patrushev two months after Beslan didn't bother to ask him a single question about the tragedy, in which 331 people were killed, over half of them children.
The political environment that has been created under Putin has securely isolated decision makers from inquisitive reporters and disturbing questions. Throughout his presidential tenure, Putin has not been asked a single uncomfortable question by a Russian journalist.
To ensure further that the general public would not be exposed to the "wrong" information and opinions, heavily controlled television is kept distinct and separate from the uncontrolled press. Unwelcome stories may appear on paper, but they are not picked up by television. In fact, Russia in its televised form is so different from the one that exists on paper that they sometimes seem like two different countries.
It is not a minor detail that nontabloid, mainstream newspapers and news magazines have very small print runs and limited distribution networks. This particular factor may not be of the Kremlin's making, but it also contributes to the political irrelevance of the print media.
Whatever the reason behind the fact that Putin's Kremlin has not yet radically cracked down on smaller media outlets -- whether it is to provide critically minded liberal elites with a place to let off steam or to present a facade of press freedom -- these media remain completely at the mercy of the state.
If push comes to shove, the state has the clear ability to expand its control to cover smaller media. Should the public become agitated or suddenly grow keen to learn more about what the government would rather keep secret, there is nothing to stop the Kremlin from forcing a change in ownership at a media outlet and, thus, its editorial line. This method has already proved effective in the sphere of television, and was most recently applied to the newspaper Izvestia. We're likely to see the Kremlin further tighten control over the media as the 2007-08 election cycle draws closer.
Putin has repeatedly said that there can be no press freedom without economic independence. Yet, in today's Russia private ownership is not a safeguard against government interference. The Kremlin has expanded control far beyond state-owned assets, and finds it easy to give loyal businessmen assignments on what properties they should buy or sell -- media property included.