A last light, about to go out

Russia: The squeeze on the free press is about to claim a noteworthy victim.

April 06, 2002

IN RUSSIA, yet again, a news organization that just happens to offer a courageous alternative to the Kremlin's line just happens to fall into severe financial difficulties.

The first to go, last year, was the NTV television station, which offered news reports that were by no means impartial or balanced but were pointed and sometimes devastating. When its debts were called in by the state-controlled Gazprom company, the NTV crew decamped to TV-6. But soon - wouldn't you know it - the giant Lukoil company was using its shareholdings in that station to shut it down.

Similarly squashed were a newspaper called Segodnya and a wonderfully incisive magazine called Itogi.

And now it's Novaya Gazeta.

A few years ago, Moscow boasted all sorts of feisty, enterprising, money-losing, sometimes irresponsible but seemingly irrepressible newspapers. And then, one by one, their owners grew tired of provocativeness, for lots of reasons - all of which seemed to have something to do with the people in power in the Kremlin.

This lamentable trend snowballed after Vladimir Putin became president, until only Novaya Gazeta remained as a newspaper willing to do courageous and difficult reporting.

The debacle in Chechnya looms large in its pages, while other newspapers have hewn to the Kremlin's version of events.

In recent issues, Novaya Gazeta has shown how the families of sailors on the ill-fated submarine Kursk are being let down - criminally - by the prosecutor's office, and predicted that, by asserting control over the big Russian companies, Mr. Putin will drive the country into another economic meltdown.

Novaya Gazeta reporters have been beaten up, and one, the redoubtable Anna Politkovskaya, was forced at one point to flee to Vienna.

Now comes worse news. The paper has lost a libel case over an article on judicial corruption and has been slapped with damages that will put it out of business. The size of the judgment is many times larger than that handed out in any other Russian libel case.

As in all the other examples, the hand of the Kremlin is not quite visible. Subtlety is something at which Mr. Putin's administration is getting good. In fact, a few of the TV-6 people may be able to make a limited comeback on the reorganized channel, thanks to a recent government licensing decision.

But a free press is not a game, nor is it a subtle benefit of the sort of democratic society in which Mr. Putin professes to believe. A free press is central to democracy and modernity. Russia has had a great opportunity to embrace both, and yet before the rest of the world it seems bent on throwing that opportunity away.

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