A predator of the press

In honor of World Press Freedom Day on May 3, Reporters Without Borders released a list of the top 40 “Predators of Press Freedom” that includes Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. It sounds as if Putin was nominated for an honorable award.

“Strong leadership from the top has been his guiding principle in the reconstruction of a strong state after the years of confusion under [former President] Boris Yeltsin,” the report said. “The press has not been spared. The national television stations now speak with a single voice.”

I am certain that the people who wrote those lines read the recently released book by Yevgeny Adamov, former head of the Nuclear Power Ministry (now called Rosatom). Adamov is famous for having been jailed in Switzerland on charges filed by the United States, then extradited to Russia where he was convicted but given a suspended sentence.

In his book, Adamov relates an incident that occurred after the August 1998 default in which he refused to use the resources of the country’s nuclear industry to help banker and NTV founder Vladimir Gusinsky resolve debt problems he was having with Most-Bank, which Gusinsky headed.

Gusinsky told Adamov, “You think you’ll be here long? The FSB will take you away by evening. I’ll teach you a lesson on what the media is capable of doing!” Adamov claims the sum involved $100 million.

“The experience gave me a first-hand understanding of how the so-called oligarchs viewed their own influence and importance at that time,” Adamov wrote.

This episode describes a business model of information blackmail and extortion that was typical of the country’s mass media — particularly television — during the Yeltsin presidency that is so disparagingly described by Reporters Without Borders.

But I think Putin’s harsh measures against NTV and Channel One were not so much aimed against freedom of the press or journalists, per se, as they were against station owners Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky, respectively. The measures were an attempt to make the state at least a little more manageable after the chaotic Yeltsin years.

In this respect, I agree fully with the authors of the media predators list. I also agree that the period during which all national television stations have been “speaking with a single voice” has dragged on a bit too long now. Having broken the control that oligarchs exercised over television, Putin either failed or, more likely, was afraid to replace it with a genuinely independent media.

Adamov writes that although the media is subordinated more to the Kremlin than to private business interests, the situation now is essentially no better than it was in the mid-1990s. But apparently, every leader has his own mission and his own resources.

If President Dmitry Medvedev wants to create the conditions for an independent media to emerge, he might get a boost from one external source: the sharp rise in Russian Internet users. Maintaining tight control over the traditional television media is less important than it was before.

Next May, we will be able to judge Medvedev’s progress by looking at Russia’s ranking in the yearly press freedom index. It would be nice if they treat Medvedev with the same respect and understanding that they have shown toward Putin.

First published in The Moscow Times

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