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And Then There Was One…

By now most everybody who is a junkie for Russia news like me will have read, commented on, and formed an opinion over Andrew Kramer’s article in today’s New York Times on the new “50% Positive News Rule” at Russian News Service. Sean Guillory has even already blogged about it, arguing that it is the economic elites, not the Kremlin that is the driving force behind the rapidly withering independence of media outlets in Russia.

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And then there was one … Echo Moskvy, which is more than 60% owned by Gazprom, is one of the last radio stations where critical news coverage is tolerated

Here’s an extract from Kramer’s article:

“Russia is dropping off the list of countries that respect press freedoms,” said Boris Timoshenko, a spokesman for the foundation. “We have propaganda, not information.” With this new campaign, seemingly aimed at tying up the loose ends before a parliamentary election in the fall 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 say. “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 in a telephone interview. Instead, the tactic has been to impose state ownership on media companies and replace editors with those who are supporters of Mr. 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 the 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 Mr. Putin.

Given that Russia has had such an extremely brief period of actual media freedom, it is easy to understand why so many people distrust privately held media, and why they are led to believe that any coverage that is critical of the Kremlin is only taking that angle at the behest of someone’s private interests. Sorry to be the one to point this out, but sometimes there are genuine news stories that the public deserves to know about that may not be politically convenient for the government. Sometimes there is more than “50% negative news” simply because that is what is happening in the nation. Let’s not forget though the the original news story to truly inspire the state’s attack on and subsequent takeover of NTV was the coverage of the atrociously executed government response to the Kursk disaster. As Peter Baker and Susan Glasser have written in Kremlin Rising, it was NTV’s interviews with the sailors’ widows that made the president “livid,” and its exposure of the government’s misinformation, refusal of international assistance, and botched and delayed rescue effort that inspired one of the more aggressive government clashes with media in recent times. Such coverage following a national tragedy is within the normal role of a responsible and free media – but in Russia it spelled the end of independent (not pro-government) television news. It is particularly naive to think that the Kremlin’s hands are clean in this crackdown on free speech. Because the beneficiary of this development is indisputable, I am not especially concerned with the debate over who exactly is behind the diminishing press freedom in Russia – all I see is the hard fact that it is more and more difficult for someone to criticize the government, more difficult to access information, and near impossible to have an open debate on policy. These are overwhelmingly negative trends. In recent years, I thought that we were being sent a clear message from the Kremlin – independent news coverage will be tolerated on a few radio stations, a handful of newspapers, and more or less widely tolerated on the internet. All that mattered to the siloviki was controlling television, because that’s where the significant majority of Russians get their news. It sometimes seems that people don’t understand that the Kremlin always plans for the existence of a visible opposition, always in tightly controlled spaces to function as pressure-release valve, so they can point to it as a defense to anyone from the outside who dares to describe Russia as a totalitarian state (they discovered that all you need is a “majoritarian” control of media and society). But as we seeing with this development, as well as the recent indications of a coming crackdown on the internet, the public space alloted for opposition and government critics is undergoing a tightening. What does this tell us about the perceptions at the highest levels of Federation leadership? Do the recent moves on the media, as well as the smothering of the Other Russia protests in the wake of heightened rhetoric and hyperbole spiraling out since the Munich speech exude confidence and a brazen willingness exercise political muscle? Or do these actions betray nervousness and instability as everyone places their bets on how the post-Putin period will shape up? I’m inclined to believe the latter.