Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 88

Controversy continues over the censoring of an article from the April 14 Izvestia which was critical of Saratov Oblast Governor Dmitri Ayatskov. Izvestia accused Igor Nikiforov, the oblast’s minister for information and press, of making two changes to the text of the article before it was printed and distributed in Saratov (see the Monitor, April 20). Izvestia subsequently wrote a series of accusatory commentaries and filed suit in court. The scandal has since attracted the attention of other national media.

In Saratov Oblast itself, the scandal has turned into a political battle. Characteristically, only members of the leftist opposition attacked the governor’s team openly, while the oblast’s other politicians preferred to remain silent, striving to maintain the appearance of loyalty to the governor.

Local journalists have taken the most aggressive stance. A statement appeared in the regional newspaper Saratovskie Vesti, one of whose founders is the oblast government, which sounded like a declaration of war on the governor. It admitted that local journalists were guilty of having tolerated the actions of the local authorities, giving the latter the impression that they could do whatever it wanted. The statement’s authors, who said they planned to take measures to correct the situation, later received support from a number of other local media.

The appearance of a “journalistic opposition” in Saratov was only to be expected. The situation in the oblast, whose governor has increasingly resorted to force, has become less and less conducive to freedom of speech and the dissemination of information. In the walk-up to the March 26 gubernatorial election in Saratov, the “Slovo” printing company on more than one occasion refused to print editions of newspapers that contained criticism of Ayatskov, citing putative “technical reasons.” A special election edition of the newspaper “Communist–XX-XXI Centuries,” which is printed in Voronezh, was prevented from being published. The selective admission of journalists into official events became a regular practice. Professional journalistic activity was openly obstructed. Therefore, the Izvestia scandal was just the last straw for the Saratov media.

The local authorities have denied the accusations. During an official briefing, Nikiforov repeated Ayatskov’s statement to national television that Izvestia’s accusations were ordered up by “oligarchs who have been torn away from the federal feeding trough” and who display a “mercenary interest” in the region. Nikiforov did not indicate who these oligarchs were or what their interests in the region were, but he said he knew who had ordered the accusations and the PR team that had carried out the orders. He threatened to sue Izvestia. Asked whether he planned also to sue Saratovskie Vesti for the statements it published, Nikiforov responded in the negative, adding that he had not yet had a chance to read them (Saratovskie Vesti, April 25).

Practically none of the local journalists in Saratov bought the statements by Nikiforov and Ayatskov. Ayatskov appears to have lost the support of most local media for good, while the oblast has entered a period of war between the authorities and the press.