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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Annals of Russian Barbarism

An editorial in the New York Times:

Years ago, Soviet news agencies grew to be experts in removing unwanted comrades from official photographs. People disappeared in the developing rooms just as they disappeared in real life, and early group photos with Stalin often contracted into a picture of the Soviet dictator standing alone. That grim history makes what’s happening today on Russia’s national television networks all the more chilling.

As Clifford Levy wrote in The Times last week, Russia’s national networks, the most powerful media in the country, are routinely deleting news or opinions critical of the Kremlin. In one notable case, Mikhail Delyagin, a well-known political analyst, criticized Vladimir Putin during the taping of a talk show. When the program aired, Mr. Delyagin was missing. Or, most of him was missing. His disembodied legs remained in the picture.

While the print media and Internet news are subject to far less censorship than television, Mr. Putin and his recent successor, President Dmitri Medvedev, have made it clear that free speech is not one of their priorities. Since 2000, when Mr. Putin was first elected president, about 14 independent journalists have been killed after doing the kinds of investigative work that any thriving nation desperately needs. Authorities often target less than obedient news outlets like the three independent newspapers that were shut down recently for allegedly using counterfeit software. The boisterous debate on the Internet continues, but the Kremlin announced recently that it will now monitor online content.

Equally insidious as government censorship is the growing self-censorship among Russian journalists. The fear, mostly of losing their jobs, is especially true at national television networks, where most Russians get their information. News about Chechnya or Georgia or Iran now follows the government line. Mr. Putin’s opponents or Mr. Medvedev’s critics are viewed as un-newsworthy, and public affairs shows on Russian television are growing more like those in the Soviet days when “news” meant reading a handout from the Kremlin.

A troubling aspect of this slide toward those dark old days is that many Russians insist they are fine with government-controlled TV. In the Web commentary after Mr. Levy’s article appeared online, quite a few Russians said a free press is unnecessary. One called the idea “American propaganda.” The American media have their flaws, but at least if you don’t like one particular television channel, the zapper offers a different view. For Russians, there is no such relief.

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