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Monday, 5 March, 2001, 19:28 GMT
Analysis: Free Russian press?
Vladimir Putin listens intently to reporters' questions
Vladimir Putin listens intently to reporters' questions
By Russian Affairs analyst Stephen Dalziel

Vladimir Putin has been Russian president for about a year, there has been relative stability in the economy, no disputes between president and parliament and Mr Putin has enjoyed a high public opinion rating.

But a question which is constantly raised in Mr Putin's Russia is, how independent is the media?

When Mikhail Gorbachev, as leader of the Soviet Union, launched his policy of glasnost, or openness, it marked the end of the media censorship which was such an important part of the one-party communist system.

Former President Gorbachev launched the openness policy
Former President Gorbachev launched the openness policy
Certainly, the opening up of the system, and the removal of the fear on which so much of it was based, were to prove crucial elements in the eventual collapse of the USSR.

When hardline communist elements tried to turn the clock back and re-establish strict centralised rule in August 1991, the ease with which the attempt was foiled was hailed as a victory for democracy.

The genie of free speech, it was declared, could not be put back in the bottle.

Media freedom

Ten years later, the genie is kicking and screaming, but its feet are already back in the bottle.

And there is no guarantee that the whole concept of a free media in Russia might not be shut up once again.

The foundations for this were laid during the Yeltsin years. In the immediate post-Soviet period, Russia enjoyed freedom of the media such as it had never known.

True, some interpreted freedom to mean a total lack of responsibility. Libels and slanders were regularly committed as some journalists used the new liberty to settle old scores.

But then a new censor took over - money.

'Election bias'

By the mid-1990s, most of the media was in the grip of a few powerful businessmen - oligarchs - who used their outlets to ensure that the public was fed a new, controlled diet of information.

The bias shown towards the incumbent President Boris Yeltsin in the election campaign in the summer of 1996 was - from the point of view of journalistic objectivity - disgraceful.

Because the media was effectively controlled by a handful of businessmen, it has been much easier for Mr Putin to rein it in.

State outlets, such as the ORT television channel, have enough editors and journalists who cut their teeth in Soviet times to know what is expected of them by the state now.

The self-censor which was inside every Soviet journalist never went away. And the non-state media had become so dominated by bosses such as the head of Media-Most, Vladimir Gusinsky, that they, too, were never fully independent.

Vladimir Gusinsky:
Vladimir Gusinsky: Awaiting extradition decision
Media-Most - and, in particular, its flagship television station, NTV - have been at the centre of what many regard as the beginning of the suppression of the media under Mr Putin.

The Russian president has said a number of times that he is in favour of a free press, and that the problems which Media-Most is experiencing are due to legal, not political matters.

Its premises, and those of businesses closely associated with it, have been raided 30 times since Mr Putin became president in March last year.

Legal wrangles

Mr Gusinsky was arrested briefly last June, and released after three days. But then, after he failed to show up in Moscow for questioning in November, he was arrested in Spain where he is currently under house arrest awaiting the outcome of an extradition request by the Russian prosecutor-general.

Whether or not Mr Putin is behind attempts to bring Media-Most under state control, if that is the result of its current legal wrangles, it would lead to the restriction of NTV's freedom.

Given the way in which NTV has criticised Mr Putin and some of his actions, that would undoubtedly be something of a relief for the president.

A year into his presidency, it is difficult escape the conclusion that the fact that the Russian media is operating in a more restricted atmosphere is not giving Mr Putin many sleepless nights.

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See also:

16 Jun 00 | Europe
Gusinsky: Thorn in Putin's side
28 Mar 00 | Business
Russia's new oligarchs
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