Writing for the Moscow Times, former NTV frontman Yevgeny Kiselyov lays waste to the Kremlin on the question of journalism in Russia:
Y-e-e-s-s-s! We did it! We have conquered another peak. Russia placed an honorable 147th among 168 countries in the latest press freedom rankings from Reporters Without Borders. With a little effort we can still catch North Korea, which is holding down last place.
As the Soviet saying went: "There is no fortress too great to be conquered by a true Bolshevik." We are close to Uzbekistan, in 155th place, and even closer to Belarus at No. 151. But the goal remains North Korea and, given that we have dropped nine places since last year, we should be able to catch up with Kim Jong Il within the next two.
In other words, we can get there in 2008, a year that preoccupies the imagination of politicians and political analysts. This is the year that will sum up the accomplishments of Vladimir Putin's presidency -- the destruction of freedom of the press in Russia began on his first day in office -- and so should represent its logical consummation.
This might sound strange for people visiting Moscow for the first time or arriving after a long absence. Kiosks are overflowing with sparkling glossy magazine covers and newspapers of surprisingly good design, and television stations look like those found in Britain or the United States. It might be in a different language, but everything on the screen looks the same: bright studio lighting, immaculately groomed anchors in elegant suits, energetic reporters with live breaking stories from the scene and special effects, charts, graphics, diagrams and subtitles spinning, revolving and flying off to, or in from, some unknown location.
If the shabbiness of Soviet-era television programs unwittingly compounded the idiocy and stupidity of Soviet propaganda, now the electronic glamour masks superbly the achievement of the censors flourishing on television today.
Given all this splendor, could we really be that close to North Korea? Take a look at the picture in modern China, a country that maintains one of the clearest blocks against freedom of information -- strict censorship of the Internet. This is the one problem the Russian authorities have yet to resolve. Legislation has been introduced in the State Duma, however, that will stiffen control over the Internet. Finally! Now we'll just shut the door on the magic online portal and, presto, we can make the great leap backward over 10 spots and catch up with Kim Jong Il.
You have to admit, though, that the poor state of press freedoms doesn't really seem that important to most people in Russia.
As an economic observer and colleague of mine used to like to say: "Freedom of the press long ago ceased to be a basic requirement for consumers." Whether we like it or not, this is a fact: Most ordinary Russians relate to freedom of the press, like other civil liberties, with scorn and cynicism. "What can your freedoms give us?" they ask. "Can they feed our families?"
It is for this reason that most ordinary Russians actually like the way Putin condescends toward and disdains the media.
Clearly, as you will hear, all of these Reporters Without Borders and Western rights advocates are just spies, Russophobes or provocateurs. They brought down the Soviet Union and now they want to do the same to Russia. They get all their money from fugitive oligarchs. As Putin once described it, Western criticism is all "spit and smear."
Informed colleagues have told me that whenever the latest criticism of Russia is leveled by a respected columnist at a newspaper like the Financial Times or The Washington Post is laid on the table, Putin contemptuously brushes it aside: "We know they are all financed by my political opponents," he seems to say.
I don't know if this is true, but I did once discuss a similar theme with Putin. This was in early 2001, when I was still the general director of NTV and the tempest surrounding the company had been raging for half a year.
For those who don't know or don't remember: NTV was entirely different then from what it is now. It was a huge private company that was not controlled by the government and didn't make a practice of singing the president's praises on a daily basis. On the contrary, the station actually carried a political satire program "Kukly," where the main characters were puppet doubles for politicians and senior officials, including Putin. There were serious programs with journalists who considered it their duty to inform viewers about events in the country and around the world, even when this was not comfortable for the Kremlin. They gave a voice to all opinions.
All of this aggravated the Kremlin. Literally a few days after Putin officially took office an operation began that, in business language, is called a hostile takeover. Apparently the Harvard School of Business now studies this operation against NTV as a classic takeover case study.
In the course of that battle, which was waged for almost one year, Gazprom -- a minority shareholder in NTV -- managed to transform its 30 percent share into a controlling stake. Many of the journalists at the station, myself included, were forced to quit and the station's editorial policy quickly changed beyond recognition.
But the meeting between Putin, myself and a few other NTV journalists came as all of this was still in its early stages.
Putin began by trying to reason with us: There was no need to worry. What difference would it make whether the station was owned by private businesspeople or the state, through Gazprom? Everything will be fine.
We had our doubts, which we expressed to the president directly. That we were actually prepared to argue with him made Putin lose his composure. The rest of the discussion was conducted in raised tones. We said that we worked the way we worked because that was how we understood our professional duty. Putin countered that we worked this way because we were well paid to do so.
Budging him from this position proved impossible.
I felt then that Putin's barely-concealed dislike for journalists and his view of them as unprincipled and for sale had developed much earlier and would continue for a long time to come.
Not long ago, following the murder of the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, when Putin discussed which brought greater harm to Russia, her death or the articles she had written, I understood that, in his own way, Putin is absolutely sincere. He considers anyone who criticizes him personally as an enemy of the State. It is the same as French King Louis XIV's famous comment "L'Гtat, c'est moi."
So it is not surprising that Putin also manages to show up on the Reporters Without Borders list of enemies press freedom, where he is in the company of a number of authoritarian leaders and outright dictators. If this seems unfair, just take a look at his most recent television question-and-answer marathon.
In my opinion, this was nothing more than a grandiose propaganda spectacle -- very well directed, thoroughly prepared with filtered questions, with not a single one being too pointed or uncomfortable for the president. It had nothing to do with freedom of speech or media freedom. In fact, it looked more like another giant step toward catching up with Kim Jong Il.