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Monday, June 30, 2008

How Putin Muzzled the Russian Press

Garry Kasparov writing in the Wall Street Journal:

"How come I am still alive? When I really think about it, it's a miracle." Several years back so spoke Anna Politkovskaya, the late Russian investigative journalist who for years fearlessly explored the depths of war-ravaged Chechnya.

She is now the subject of the documentary "Letter to Anna" by Swiss director Eric Bergkraut. The film premiered in the U.S. last night at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York. Politkovskaya reported conversations with families ripped apart by war. She was also the voice of Russian soldiers who were ashamed of the atrocities committed in their country's name. Her work made her the enemy of many powerful people, and on Oct. 7, 2006, the 48-year-old was gunned down in the foyer of her apartment building.

In May, Dmitry Medvedev took Vladimir Putin's chair, if not his power. At the World Russian Press Congress in Moscow on June 11, Mr. Medvedev pledged to "support media freedom." But the picture remains bleak.

Mr. Medvedev recently touted the need for a "Cyrillic Internet" and criticized the closing of Russian-language media enterprises in former Soviet states where local languages are reasserting themselves after Soviet-era restrictions. He also lauded the quality of Russian television, even as Kremlin paranoia about what appears on TV has reached new heights.

Vladimir Posner, president of the Russian Academy of Television, recently confessed that he submits a list of desired guests on his show to Channel One management, who then lets him know whom he can and cannot invite. Political analyst Mikhail Delyagin criticized Mr. Putin on the air and was digitally deleted from a talk show.

The Kremlin's subjugation of the Russian press has been, along with a rise in oil prices of over 700%, key to the perceived success of the Putin regime. Mr. Putin learned the importance of controlling the mass media early on. In 2000, faced with a public outcry over the botched rescue of the crew of the Kursk nuclear submarine that sank during a training exercise in the Barents Sea, he went after the press.

Media outlets have been taken over by forces friendly to Mr. Putin and his closest associates. This "soft censorship" is accompanied by the more conventional kind, such as lists of verboten topics for television, where a vast majority of Russians get their news.

It wasn't always this way. The corruption of the Boris Yeltsin era is burned into Russia's collective memory only because the press reported it at the time. In the 1990s, competing oligarchs waged war against one another in their media outlets. It was not a fight fought fairly or decently, but many facts came to light as thousands of honest journalists worked to bring the truth to the Russian public.

The elite circle of oligarchs surrounding Mr. Putin have much greater power and riches than did Yeltsin's entourage. They dominate the media, and thus very little is known about how they amassed their fortunes. In 2000, there were no Russians on the Forbes magazine list of the world's billionaires. By 2005 there were 36.

Today there are 87, more than Germany and Japan combined, in a country where 13% of our citizens live under the national poverty line of $150 a month. This massive concentration of wealth is mirrored in the Russian stock market. In 2007, the top 10 listed companies accounted for 68.5% of the primary Russian bourse. Gazprom alone represented over 27%.

The Western press has helped paint a rosy picture of the business environment in Russia. But consider the travails of British Petroleum. BP owns half of TNK-BP, with the other 50% owned by wealthy Russians. BP thought it was playing the game correctly by colluding with members of Mr. Putin's inner circle. Now a boardroom battle is pitting BP against its oligarch partners, who do not hesitate to bring state power to the fight.

Western fantasies about Russia's situation don't serve anyone in the long run, least of all the Russian people. The Politkovskaya documentary will hopefully help bring attention to the reality of censorship and corruption in Russia. At the film's appearance in Prague last March, former Czech President Václav Havel stated, "It would be good if many people could see this film. Especially politicians who kiss and embrace Russian politicians, almost dizzy with the smell of oil and gas."

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