Two Titans Meet

How Free Is the Russian Media?

By Reese Erlich for the Russia Project

Here's the impression many Americans might have about media freedoms in the new Russia:

The Soviet media were straightjacketed by the Communist Party. When Boris Yeltsin became president in 1991, the Russian press became free for the first time. Now that hard-liner Vladimir Putin is president, the media are repressed once again.

But that's not entirely accurate.

The press certainly wasn't free in the old days of the USSR. As well-known Russian television journalist Vladimir Pozner points out in his conversation with Walter Cronkite for the Russia Project, Soviet journalists were then considered "soldiers of the ideological war." They were expected to faithfully carry out the line of the Communist Party.

But in the waning years of Gorbachev, at the height of peristroika, the Soviet media enjoyed much wider freedoms. The Communist Party gave up its press monopoly, alternative newspapers began to publish, and even official newspapers criticized the government. That relative press freedom continued into the early days of Yeltsin's administration.

But very early in the post-Soviet era, powerful oligarchs monopolized the Russian media. They used the press to further their own economic and political agendas, including the reelection of Yeltsin. Back then, reporters routinely accepted bribes for favorable coverage—a practice that continues today, Pozner explains.

Some in Russia criticized Yeltsin with the same kind of language now used to criticize Putin. A recent editorial, which appeared in the St. Petersburg Times, a Russian English language daily, lambasted Yeltsin for his verbal attack on TV journalists and noted the power of Russia's new media oligarchs.

Most of Russia's media oligarchs, and hence their media outlets, supported the election of President Putin. One that didn't came under sharp attack in April 2001.

Pro-Putin forces took over MediaMost, a money-losing media conglomerate that included NTV, the country's largest independent television network. Most news anchors and reporters walked out in protest, saying the takeover would result in more favorable coverage of the government. Putin supporters insisted the takeover was a necessary business move that wouldn't affect news coverage. (See Putin's viewpoint in The Moscow Times)

In his Russia Project interview, Pozner says the NTV takeover was not an example of media censorship, but rather reflected a long-running dispute between President Putin and MediaMost owner Vladimir Gusinsky.

Fred Weir, a freelance correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor and a consultant for the Russia Project, wrote an article showing the lack of press freedoms in regions outside Moscow.

Here are summaries of the editorial positions of major US newspapers about the NTV takeover.

While coverage of the issues has faded in the US media, Weir offers a timely update in the August 1, 2001, Christian Science Monitor.