Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 137

The Russian Press Freedom Support Group, made up of six Western press freedom advocacy groups, has questioned whether a free press exists in Russia and warned that a Russian government document on “international information security” could erode media freedoms even further. A delegation from the group, which was in Moscow this week and met with Mikhail Lesin, Russia’s press minister, and Vladislav Surkov, a deputy Kremlin chief of staff, released a statement yesterday saying that “there is not a truly free and independent media in Russia today.” The group also called attention to a paper on “international information security” submitted to a Council of Europe conference in Krakow, Poland last month. The paper stated, among other things, that countries should have “equal rights to protect their information resources and vital structures from illegitimate use or unauthorized information intervention.” It also called on states not to engage in such things as “unauthorized interference in information and telecommunication systems and information resources” of other states or the “manipulation of information flows, disinformation and concealment of information with a view to undermining a society’s psychological and spiritual environment and eroding traditional cultural, moral, ethical and esthetic values.” A European member of the World Press Freedom Committee, who was part of the Russian Press Freedom Support Group delegation, said that the document used “the kind of language we have not heard in Russia or in any country since the end of the Cold War” (Moscow Times, July 14). The group also cited the arrests of Media-Most chief Vladimir Gusinsky in May and Radio Liberty correspondent Andrei Babitsky earlier this year as ominous signs of Russia’s direction in the area of press freedom (Radio Liberty, July 14)

Last month, the Security Council, a powerful Kremlin advisory body (headed by Sergei Ivanov–a long-time associate of President Vladimir Putin and, like him, a security services veteran), approved an “information security doctrine” which asserted, among other things, that Russian media could be viewed as posing a threat to national security by publishing information deemed “untrue or biased.” While the authors of the document insisted that they were committed to a free press and opposed censorship, some Russian advocacy groups saw it as an attempt to limit freedom of expression (Moscow Times, June 27). Earlier in June, Lesin said that all Russian print media would have to be licensed and that newspaper and magazines, after being informed about the procedures, would be given six months to a year to get a license (Obshchaya gazeta, June 8).

Thus the overall trend toward the state squeezing the media seems clear, and seems to have Putin’s blessing. In his State of the Nation on July 8, he insisted that he was for a free press and against censorship, but accused some media of generating “mass disinformation” and even working to undermine the state (see the Monitor, July 10). In a long interview published today, Putin repeated an idea that he broached during the address, questioning whether the Russian media were truly independent, given that the so-called “oligarchs” are the press puppetmasters. “They fight more for maintaining their influence on the state then for freedom of speech and the press,” Putin said in his latest interview, referring to Russia’s media barons. He added, however, that he thought the conflict between the media and the authorities was “artificial” (Izvestia, July 14). Yesterday, one of Putin’s newer allies, State Duma speaker Gennady Seleznev, said he did not believe that the authorities were trying to reimpose media censorship (Russian agencies, July 13).