Things have not been going well for Russia’s non-state press for quite a while now, and its plight did not begin with Vladimir Putin’s accession as head of state. The Kremlin-inspired criminal probes that eventually brought down Vladimir Gusinsky’s Media-Most group, for example, actually began in the summer of 1999, when Boris Yeltsin was still president and well before Vladimir Putin was either named prime minister or anointed as Yeltsin’s successor. Still, Putin’s rise to power saw a quick ratcheting up of pressure on various media–the detention of Radio Liberty correspondent Andrei Babitsky and the brief jailing of Gusinsky took place just months after he assumed the presidency–that has not let up since. Indeed, the past week–the first week of the second half of Putin’s term–saw several worrying developments in area of press freedom.
The first was the tender for broadcasting license for the state’s sixth television channel, which belonged to Boris Berezovsky’s TV-6 until it was taken off the air earlier this year. The tender’s outcome was no surprise: The winner was Media-Socium, the “noncommercial partnership” headed by former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and the veteran Soviet-era industrialist Arkady Volsky. Primakov and Volsky–the former once headed Russia’s foreign intelligence service while the latter once served as economic adviser to KGB chief and Soviet leader Yury Andropov–were reportedly tapped by Putin, another special services veteran, to keep an eye on the other members of the winning team, which includes well-known oligarchs like electricity tsar Anatoly Chubais and the oil tycoon-cum-regional governor Roman Abramovich and a team of journalists led by former TV-6 general director Yevgeny Kiselev.
In a sign of how the very concept of media independence has become precarious in Russia, Primakov openly and earnestly told reporters that he hoped Kiselev’s team would agree to “a certain degree of censorship” on the new sixth channel–“self-censorship,” he added by way of clarification, after Kiselev reminded him that censorship was prohibited by the country’s constitution. Just a year ago, Boris Jordan and Alfred Kokh still thought it necessary to pay rhetorical homage to the principle of journalistic independence when they took over Gusinsky’s NTV television on behalf of the state-controlled Gazprom monopoly.