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Monday, April 23, 2007

Now, the Kremlin Goes After Radio Broadcasting

One of the last vestiges of real journalism in Russia is the Echo of Moscow radio station, and Gazprom owns it, so it could be shut down without warning at any time (the much-beloved newspaper Kommersant is also owned by Kremlin-friendly forces, and flight of journalists have fled the station and the paper because of the ownership changes). Is the Kremlin now on EM's scent, ready to crush it just as TV journalism was destroyed, as well as that of most major newspapers? Doing so would create a significant backlash among the intelligentsia, so naturally the groundwork has to be laid first, the precedent established. The International Herald Tribune reports:

At their first meeting with journalists since taking over Russia's largest independent radio news network, the incoming managers had some startling news of their own: From now on, at least 50 percent of the reports about Russia must be "positive."

In addition, opposition leaders cannot be mentioned on the air and the United States is to be portrayed as an enemy, journalists employed by the network, Russian News Service, say they were told.

How would they know what constituted positive news? "When we talk of death, violence or poverty, for example, this is not positive," said an editor still working at the station, who did not want to be identified for fear of retribution. "If the stock market is up, that is positive. The weather can also be positive." When in doubt about the positive or negative quality of a development, the editor said, "We should ask the new leadership."

"We are having trouble with the positive part, believe me," the editor said.

In a darkening media landscape, radio news had been a rare bright spot. Now, the 50 percent positive rule leaves a vanishingly small number of news outlets managed by the Kremlin, directly or through the state national gas company, Gazprom, a major owner of media assets. The three national television networks are already state controlled, though small circulation newspapers generally remain independent. Just this month, a bank loyal to the president tightened its control of an independent television station, Parliament passed a new amendment to a law banning "extremism" in the media and prosecutors are going after individuals who post critical comments on Web chat rooms. And Parliament is considering extending state control to Internet sites that report news, reflecting the growing importance of Web news as the country becomes more affluent and growing numbers of middle class Russians acquire computers.

This week, the police raided the Educated Media Foundation, a nongovernmental group sponsored by U.S. and European donors that helps foster an independent news media. That brought down a Web site run by the Glasnost Defense Fund, a media rights group, which published bulletins on violations of press freedoms. "Russia is dropping off the list of countries that respect press freedoms," said Boris Timoshenko, a spokesman for the fund. "We have propaganda, not information." Also Friday, officials at Russian state companies, including the chief executive of the state oil company Rosneft, abruptly canceled their speaking engagements at an economic forum in London scheduled to open Monday. The Vedomosti newspaper, citing a company employee, reported that Putin ordered the executives to pull out of the engagement at the Queen Elizabeth II conference center. The forum is typically attended by dissident Russian businessmen living in exile in London. The Kremlin declined to comment on the report.

With this new campaign, seemingly aimed at rolling up the loose ends ahead of an election for Parliament next autumn that is being carefully stage-managed by the Kremlin, censorship rules in Russia have reached their most restrictive since the breakup of the Soviet Union, media watchdog groups contend. "This is not the U.S.S.R., when every print or broadcasting outlet was preliminarily censored," Masha Lipman, a researcher at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said during a telephone interview. Instead, the tactic has been to impose state ownership on media companies and replace editors with those who are supporters of Putin - or offer a generally more upbeat report on developments in Russia these days. The new censorship rules are often passed in vaguely worded measures and decrees that are ostensibly intended to protect the public.

Late last year, for example, the prosecutor general and interior minister appeared before Parliament to ask deputies to draft legislation banning the distribution on the Web of "extremist" content - a catch phrase, critics say, for information about opponents of Putin. On Friday, the Federal Security Service, a successor agency to the KGB, questioned Garry Kasparov, the former chess champion and opposition politician, for four hours regarding an interview he gave on the Echo of Moscow radio station. Prosecutors have accused Kasparov of expressing extremist views. This week, Parliament passed a law allowing up to three years imprisonment for "vandalism" motivated by politics or ideology. Once again, vandalism is interpreted broadly, rights groups say, including acts of civil disobedience

In a test case, Moscow prosecutors are pursuing a criminal case against a political activist for posting critical remarks about a member of Parliament on a Web site, the Kommersant newspaper reported Friday. State television news, meanwhile, typically offers only bland fare of official meetings. Last weekend, the state channels mostly ignored the violent dispersal of opposition protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Already, listeners to the Russian News Service are grumbling about the positive news policy. "I want fresh morning broadcasts and not to fall asleep," a listener complained in a post on the station's Web site signed: Sergei from Vladivostok. "Maybe you've tortured RSN's audience enough? There are just a few of us left. Down with the boring nonintellectual broadcasts!" The change leaves only Echo of Moscow, an irreverent and edgy news channel that often provides a forum for opposition voices, as the only independent radio news outlet in Russia with national reach. And what does Aleksei Venediktov, editor in chief of Echo of Moscow, think of the latest news from Russia? "For Echo of Moscow, this is positive news," Venediktov said. "We are a monopoly now. From the point of view of the country, it is negative news."

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