The New York Times reports that Putin's opponents are being made to vanish from Russian TV, a neo-Stalinist purge that ought to send chills down the spine of any reasonable person. The Times has published a translation of the article on its Russian blog as part of an ongoing series, and generated a number of comments from Russian which it has also translated. One Russian reader wrote:
There is room on TV only for those who work to strengthen the country. If your actions are destructive, i.e. you do not support the unidirectional progression of your country, then there is no place for you there. I really want to say: write in newspapers and on the Internet, but TV is too strong a tool to hand over to everyone. TV should be for propaganda.On a talk show last fall, a prominent political analyst named Mikhail G. Delyagin had some tart words about Vladimir V. Putin. When the program was later televised, Mr. Delyagin was not.
Not only were his remarks cut — he was also digitally erased from the show, like a disgraced comrade airbrushed from an old Soviet photo. (The technicians may have worked a bit hastily, leaving his disembodied legs in one shot.)
Mr. Delyagin, it turned out, has for some time resided on the so-called stop list, a roster of political opponents and other critics of the government who have been barred from TV news and political talk shows by the Kremlin.
The stop list is, as Mr. Delyagin put it, “an excellent way to stifle dissent.”
It is also a striking indication of how Mr. Putin has increasingly relied on the Kremlin-controlled TV networks to consolidate power, especially in recent elections.
Opponents who were on TV a year or two ago all but vanished during the campaigns, as Mr. Putin won a parliamentary landslide for his party and then installed his protégé, Dmitri A. Medvedev, as his successor. Mr. Putin is now prime minister, but is still widely considered Russia’s leader.
Onetime Putin allies like Mikhail M. Kasyanov, his former prime minister, and Andrei N. Illarionov, his former chief economic adviser, disappeared from view. Garry K. Kasparov, the former chess champion and leader of the Other Russia opposition coalition, was banned, as were members of liberal parties.
Even the Communist Party, the only remaining opposition party in Parliament, has said that its leaders are kept off TV.
And it is not just politicians. Televizor, a rock group whose name means TV set, had its booking on a St. Petersburg station canceled in April, after its members took part in an Other Russia demonstration.
When some actors cracked a few mild jokes about Mr. Putin and Mr. Medvedev at Russia’s equivalent of the Academy Awards in March, they were expunged from the telecast.
Indeed, political humor in general has been exiled from TV. One of the nation’s most popular satirists, Viktor A. Shenderovich, once had a show that featured puppet caricatures of Russian leaders, including Mr. Putin. It was canceled in Mr. Putin’s first term, and Mr. Shenderovich has been all but barred from TV.
Senior government officials deny the existence of a stop list, saying that people hostile to the Kremlin do not appear on TV simply because their views are not newsworthy.
In interviews, journalists said that they did not believe the Kremlin kept an official master stop list, but that the networks kept their own, and that they all operated under an informal stop list — an understanding of the Kremlin’s likes and dislikes.
Vladimir V. Pozner, host of “Times,” a political talk show on the top national network, Channel One, said the pressure to conform to Kremlin dictates had intensified over the last year, and had not eased even after the campaign.
“The elections have led to almost a paranoia on the part of the Kremlin administration about who is on television,” said Mr. Pozner, who is president of the Russian Academy of Television.
In practice, Mr. Pozner said, he tells Channel One executives whom he wants to invite on the show, and they weed out anyone they think is persona non grata.
“They will say, ‘Well, you know we can’t do that, it’s not possible, please, don’t put us in this situation. You can’t invite so and so’ — whether it be Kasparov or Kasyanov or someone else,” Mr. Pozner said.
He added: “The thing that nobody wants to talk about is that we do not have freedom of the press when it comes to the television networks.”
Vladimir R. Solovyov, another political talk show host, said Mr. Pozner was complaining only because his ratings were down and he was looking for someone to blame if his program was canceled. Mr. Solovyov, a vocal supporter of Mr. Putin, said he had never been bullied by the Kremlin.
Yet last year, his show, “Throw Down the Gauntlet,” regularly featured members of opposition parties. This year, the only politicians to appear have been leaders of Mr. Putin’s party, United Russia, and an allied party.
Asked why he had not invited opposition leaders lately, Mr. Solovyov said: “No one supports them. They have nothing to say.”
Vladimir A. Ryzhkov, a liberal and former member of Parliament who used to appear on the show, said Mr. Solovyov was covering up for the Kremlin.
“He lies, of course,” Mr. Ryzhkov said. “My programs with him were among the highest rated programs of any in the history of his show.”
Mr. Ryzhkov said he was usually allowed to appear in lengthy segments on only one major channel: Russia Today, the English-language news station, which the Kremlin established to spread its viewpoint globally.
“I can go on Russia Today only because they want to make it seem that in Russia, there is freedom of the press,” he said.
After the Soviet Union’s fall, several national and regional networks arose that were owned by oligarchs. Though they operated with relatively few restrictions, their owners often used them to settle personal and business scores. One network, NTV, garnered attention for its investigative reporting and war dispatches from Chechnya.
Mr. Putin chafed at negative coverage of the government, and the Kremlin effectively took over the major national networks in his first term, including NTV. Vladimir Gusinsky, NTV’s owner, was briefly arrested and then fled the country after giving up the network. From that point on, executives and journalists at Russian networks clearly understood that they would be punished for resisting the Kremlin.
All the major national and regional networks are now owned by the government or its allies. And since the presidential election in March, neither Mr. Putin nor Mr. Medvedev has indicated any interest in loosening the reins.
“Our television is very often criticized,” Mr. Medvedev said in April. “They say it is boring, it is pro-government, it is too oriented towards the positions of state agencies, of those in power. You know, I can say that our television — in terms of quality, in terms of the technology used — is, I believe, one of the best in the world.”
Valery Y. Komissarov, a former host on a state channel who is now a governing party leader in Parliament, said television coverage was a convenient scapegoat for opposition politicians and antagonistic commentators.
“These are people who are not interesting for society, who are not interesting for journalists,” Mr. Komissarov said. “But they want publicity and perhaps they want to explain away their lack of creative and political success by the fact that they are persecuted, that they are included on the so-called stop list.”
While the Kremlin has focused on TV because it has by far the largest audience, many radio stations and newspapers also abide by the stop list, either ignoring or belittling the opposition.
There are exceptions: a few national and regional newspapers regularly publish critical news and commentary about Mr. Putin and comments from those on the stop list. In addition, the Internet is not censored, and contains plenty of criticism of the government.
A small national network, Ren TV, pushes the boundaries, as does a national radio station, the Echo of Moscow, which has become the voice of the opposition even though Gazprom, the government gas monopoly, owns a majority stake in it.
The Kremlin seems to tolerate criticism in such outlets because they have a limited reach compared with the major television networks. The nightly news on Channel One, for example, is far more popular than any of its counterparts in the United States. It regularly is one of top 10 most-watched programs in Russia.
Mr. Delyagin, the political analyst edited out of the talk show last fall, said he was surprised to have been invited in the first place. He said he last appeared on a major network several years ago, before he began attacking the Kremlin and supporting the opposition.
“I thought that maybe she forgot to look at the stop list,” he said, referring to the program’s host, Kira A. Proshutinskaya.
(Last week, after a Russian-language version of this article was posted on a blog run by the Moscow bureau of The New York Times, Mr. Delyagin was invited to appear on a show on NTV.)
Ms. Proshutinskaya’s program, “The People Want to Know,” had been censored before.
Mr. Ryzhkov, the liberal former member of Parliament, went on the show last year, but its network, TV Center, refused to broadcast it.
In an interview, Ms. Proshutinskaya conceded that Mr. Delyagin had been digitally erased from the program. She said she had been embarrassed by the incident, as well as the one with Mr. Ryzhkov, explaining that the network was responsible. The Kremlin had so intimidated the networks, she said, that self-censorship was rampant.
“I would be lying if I said that it is easy to work these days,” she said. “The leadership of the channels, because of their great fear of losing their jobs — they are very lucrative positions — they overdo everything.”
The management of her network would not comment. But the network’s news director, Mikhail A. Ponomaryov, said journalists and hosts of talk shows had no choice but to comply with the rules.
“It would be stupid to say that we can do whatever we want,” he said. “If the owner of the company thinks that we should not show a person, as much as I want to, I cannot do it.”