Europe

The Russian Media, Putin, and Chechnya

Russia: Freedom Regained

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with leading figures from the Russian media
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with the editors of leading Russian newspapers, Jan. 13, 2001 (Photo: AFP). 

The Russian public had hardly recovered from the grisly Moscow theater siege before Parliament began blaming the press for expressing anti-government sentiments. In the end, President Vladimir Putin ceremoniously vetoed amendments to press and anti-terrorism laws that would have imposed new restrictions on the media. Journalists stopped short of praising the Kremlin, whose long hand was seen behind the legislation.

Since Putin came to power in 1999, independent media have come under increasing pressure. Criminal investigations forced two of the biggest media magnates, Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky, into exile. The situation, it seemed, could hardly get worse. In Novoye Vremya (Nov. 24), Tatyana Kamoza noted Russia’s already low press-freedom ranking: Before the Moscow hostage-taking, according to the French group Reporters sans Frontières, Russia took 121st place out of 139 countries, ahead of Iran but behind Ukraine (112).

In fact, the amendments to the press and anti-terrorism laws had been under consideration for nearly a year. The State Duma passed the amendments in a second reading the morning of Oct. 23, just hours before Chechen rebels took control of the theater on Dubravka. As approved by the Duma on Nov. 1 and the Federation Council Nov. 13, the amendments would have barred media from transmitting information on the techniques employed in operations to free hostages, material that promoted or justified extremist activities, or statements intended as propaganda or justification for extremist activities.

Although the public largely praised the media’s coverage of the hostage crisis, many Russians support restrictions on press freedom while giving Putin high approval ratings. “The level of trust in the president is immense,” wrote Moskovskie Novosti’s Dmitri Furman (Dec. 4). According to a poll cited by Furman, 78 percent of respondents expressed a moderate to high degree of trust in the president. Izvestiya’s Georgi Ilichev cited a different poll showing more than half of respondents favor restrictions on the reporting of crises.

Interviewed in Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Vsevolod Bogdanov, chairman of the Russian Union of Journalists, called the amendments an attack on the media (Nov. 18). “The deputies of the State Duma and members of the Council of Federation have tried to make a big show out of the terror attack. On the one hand, they’ve passed laws that restrict the work of the press, and, on the other hand, they have refused even to establish a parliamentary commission to investigate the causes and circumstances of the terror attack.”

Putin’s veto, in the presence of selected media representatives, was a Kremlin triumph, charged Sergei Agafonov of Novye Izvestiya (Nov. 27). “Not only did Putin once again remain the ‘man in white,’ but he received an additional, powerful lever of influence on Russia’s impressionistic society, whose emotional representatives zealously competed with one another to thank the guarantor of democracy and the values of freedom.” Novaya Gazeta’s Viktoriya Chutkova and Sergei Mikhalych wrote (Nov. 28): “The goal was to create a public lashing. The better part of Putin’s speech was an angry rebuke at those who increase their rating on the blood of others. If you recall the details of Putin’s election, this was a bold declaration.”

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