Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 210

The issue of freedom of the press was the subject of both debate and the headlines in Moscow on Wednesday. Three leaders of the leftist opposition in the State Duma–Gennady Zyuganov of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), Nikolai Ryzhkov of the Popular Rule faction and Nikolai Kharitonov of the Agrarian Party–sent a letter to Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov demanding that the government set up oversight committees for all television channels “without exception.” These committees, the opposition leaders wrote, should have “all necessary authority for the oversight and regulation of the content of all television programs in the interests of the majority of the population.” The committees should also “reflect contemporary Russian society in demographic, political and other terms,” the letter stated.

The opposition leaders also complained that the mass media were “demonstrating the extreme tendentiousness of the heads and owners of the television channels, their open enmity to the activities of the new government and the parties and movements which support it.” They referred specifically to Nikolai Svanidze, former head of the state’s RTR television and its top commentator, saying that his anticommunism was “pathological” and “odious.” The privately owned NTV television channel was also a target of their wrath: The letter’s authors accused it of being “pro-NATO,” “anti-Serb” and “pro-Israeli” in its coverage of international news. The letter’s authors urged the government to investigate whether the law was observed when NTV and Russian Public Television (ORT, which is 51 percent owned) were privatized. (An NTV anchor noted Wednesday night that NTV was always private, and thus never “privatized.”) Zyuganov and Co. also said the government should look into whether the heads of the stations have observed “financial and tax discipline” (Russian agencies, November 11).

While it is difficult to gauge how real these threats to re-impose state media controls are, anonymous Duma sources reported on Tuesday that the communists had made the introduction of media oversight organs a condition of their support for an austere 1999 budget and START-II ratification–two elements which are probably crucial for getting Western governments and international lending institutions to support further large-scale financial assistance (see the Monitor, November 11). Aleksandr Shokhin, head of “Russia is Our Home” faction in the Duma, said Wednesday that he could not discount the possibility of a return to censorship. He noted that Primakov had not reacted one way or another to the communists’ demands vis-a-vis the media, and said that the media oversight committees were already in their final stage of formation. Deputy Prime Minister Valentina Matvienko said that “professional” and “qualified” media oversight councils would simply participate in formulating the general direction of television or radio channels in the interests of viewers and listeners, and would not become censorship organs (Russian agencies, November 11).

It was not clear whether Matvienko’s comments meant that the Primakov government had already agreed to the idea of oversight councils. Yevgeny Kiselev, host of NTV’s weekly news analysis programs “Itogi,” said he did not take the threat seriously. Primakov, he said, would probably find a diplomatic way to let the issue die (Moscow Times, November 12).