Killing the messenger

Russia: Freedom of information is threatened after the Kremlin silences critical TV channel.

January 24, 2002

MOSCOW'S TV6 meant nothing to most Americans; only some 150,000 people here watched its gutsy news programs by satellite.

Nevertheless, Americans -- and official Washington in particular -- should be concerned about the Kremlin's decision this week to kill Russia's last independent nationwide TV network.

TV6 rose from the ashes of far bigger NTV. That independent network, too, was strangled because President Vladimir V. Putin's henchmen did not like its aggressive news coverage, provocative panel discussions and constant criticism of the government.

TV6, for its part, questioned Russia's ruthless war in Chechnya and probed the corruption and bureaucratic arbitrariness that are hallmarks of today's Russia.

Mr. Putin's apologists argue that freedom of information is alive and well in Russia, despite the bureaucratic shenanigans that led to those critical channels' demise. But that is utter nonsense.

Several freewheeling newspapers still exist in Moscow, but they are printed by government-controlled presses that can be stopped at any moment.

The situation is even worse in the provinces. Not only are presses there owned by the authorities, but governors or mayors decide which newspapers get newsprint.

If these prods are not enough, the Russian government has an army of hooded tax police to raid media outlets that get out of line.

Crisis politics makes strange bedfellows. But official Washington, in doing business with the Kremlin, should remember President Putin is no democrat. He is a veteran KGB operative on a determined and ruthless mission to solidify his unquestioned authority.

That's what the strangling of TV6 is all about.

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