Putin's Thin Skin

Russian Authorities Still Find a Free Press Hard to Tolerate

Opinion | Tamara Nosenko | September 2007

On a visit to Vienna last May, Russian President Vladimir Putin cancelled his scheduled interview with the Austrian public television station ORF.  The Austrians were dumbfounded.

There was no time, explained the Russian officials off-handedly. And anyway the "unfriendly reporting on the eve of the state visit," containing pictures of the Chechnyan war, left the Russian president disinclined to be cooperative. Both reasons were presented and widely discussed in diplomatic circles: Nobody believed the "time" excuse, and by the time the Chechnya excuse had been researched and dismissed, Putin had already left the country.

Putin’s opportunity to "clear up the Russian position," Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik pointed out, had turned into confusion.

Now the question is whether the Russian Federation has developed any sort of tradition of real communication with the press. Can the powers that be answer tough questions? It has only been since Gorbachev’s time that Russians have witnessed regular press-conferences by the head of the state. Under Yeltsin these first cautious steps toward honest dialogue with the media accelerated into an Olympic run. But suddenly, the system was out of breath, too winded to be consistent. In the final years of his presidency Yeltsin spoke to the press only on very rare occasions.

When Putin took office, expectations were mixed. Many hoped he would recognise the necessity as well as the benefits of free speech. This did not happen. During Putin’s years, that independent nation-wide television channels were all shut down or reformatted into government P-A systems with high production values. Once again, after a short remission, Russia became a place that press freedom activists put on the watch list. Nevertheless, there are still annual press-conferences being held by the Russian president. And of course, everyone is invited –opposition newspapers, loyal press and international reporters.

There is only one problem. During these press-conferences the opportunity to ask a question is usually granted only to carefully selected journalists, mostly from the Kremlin press pool. Good questions are to be asked in a ringing voice, and bad questions are never to be whispered at all – reminiscent of the wider phenomenon that analyst Lilia Shevtsova of the Carnegie Moscow Center calls "the illusion of democracy."

But when the President is traveling, it seems to be easier simply to avoid contact with the press altogether. It’s just too hard to stage it properly. Caught off guard, Putin tends to make ill considered remarks as he did on Larry King Live. King asked him, "What happened to the Kursk submarine?" Putin lounged back in his chair with one arm hanging over the side, and said, "It sunk."

More then that, careless, off-the-cuff answers at the highest echelon of Russian power – to sometimes relatively neutral questions – send a political message to local functionaries. It says, you are free to do the same. And they do. For example, confirming that the newspaper Gorodskiye Vesti (City News) in Volgograd was shut down by acting Mayor Alexei Doronin for publishing a cartoon depicting Prophet Muhammad, Christ, Buddha, and Moses. The seemingly harmless image showed the founders of the world’s main religions sitting in front of a TV set watching a group of people starting a fight. The caption read: "We did not teach you this." While it is hard to imagine who could possibly find this insulting or irreverent, the authorities took the easy way out.

"Some people did not like the image published in the paper and we have closed Gorodskiye Vesti to avoid the fanning of a religious feud," Doronin said.

Given attitudes like these, violations against freedom of the press are much more frequent and high-profile in remote areas than in the center of this immense country. Russia faces presidential elections in 2008. What kind of tradition is it leaving for the new president to inherit? Having the courage to speak openly with the press usually demonstrates authority and the security of someone’s position.

The next question is, will there be any authority left to inherit?

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