Putin tries to gag Russia's critical media

Government control: Paranoia about private owners' intentions drives monopolization by Kremlin.

September 09, 2000

IN THE PAST month, horrified Russians have watched officials' helplessness as a nuclear submarine sank and Moscow's gigantic television tower burned out of control.

Yet even these catastrophes could pale in comparison with a disaster currently in the making -- President Vladimir Putin's attempt to muzzle the country's free-wheeling media.

At the moment the Kremlin is trying to take over two nationwide television networks.

The owner of gutsy NTV, Vladimir Gusinsky, is resisting, even though he was jailed on trumped-up charges for three days during the spring. Another billionaire, Boris Berezovsky, is fighting the Kremlin's ultimatum that he give his shares of ORT to the government.

Orchestrating this power grab is the Kremlin's media minister, Mikhail Lesin. Politics aside, personal and material envy color his moves: His vast wealth comes from a company that wants to control the sale of all advertising on television.

Is this just a case of Mr. Lesin trying to muscle out his rivals?

Unfortunately, it is even worse.

Since Mr. Putin came to the Kremlin, first as President Boris Yeltsin's prime minister, he has preached that his country is the target of an "information war." Not only are the Chechens attacking Russia, according to this fantasy, but also the outside world and domestic enemies.

This paranoia would be laughable, except that President Putin told family members of the sunken submarine's crew that television stations and other internal critics bore responsibility for the disaster.

Even more spooky is the fact that the media ministry's draft budget contains two classifications that have been declared top secret. One is for "information struggle," the other for "mobilization purposes."

"The mass media have been under overt and covert pressure for a long time now," the Kommersant daily wrote recently, pointing out how federal prosecutors, the tax police and various code enforcers have been used in the campaign to gag critics.

A cacophony of lively and diverse media voices has developed in Russia in the decade since the collapse of communism. Some of those outlets are highly respected and responsible; others thrive on rumors and scandals.

All in all, though, these unfettered newspapers and electronic media outlets are part of a system of checks and balances that are essential if Russia is to develop into a stable democracy. That's why the Kremlin's muzzling campaign is so dangerous.

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