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Staying independent in tough times


Battered financially by a continuing economic crisis and under political siege by Communists eager to reassert their control, Russia's media are facing some of their darkest days since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Across the board, the future is deeply uncertain for national daily newspapers owned by suddenly less wealthy tycoons; for small regional papers whose advertising revenues have collapsed; and for TV stations facing pressure to accept political oversight boards.

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"It is not clear what is going to happen, or how, but I am sure that nothing good is in store for us," says Masha Lipman, deputy editor of the weekly Itogi magazine, published in conjunction with the US magazine Newsweek.

The crisis is "creating conditions that threaten the very existence of a non-state press in Russia over the long term," warns a recent report from the National Press Institute, a Moscow-based group fostering the growth of the independent press.

Meanwhile, with the approach of high-stakes elections next year to the Duma, or lower house of parliament, there are few hopes that newspapers or TV stations will soon be able to break out of their traditional role as mouthpieces for whichever politician or businessman is paying them.

The issue of press freedom has come to a head with a declaration of war by the Communist Party and its allies, who control the Duma, against a group of prominent anti-Communist journalists at independent TV channels.

In a throwback to Soviet days, Communist Duma Deputy Alexander Kuvayev threatened in a speech last month to set up a "public committee" over their "active and deliberate support for the [previous] regime and its criminal activities."

Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov then wrote to Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, demanding that "monitoring commissions" be established at TV stations to oversee news coverage because "their leaders and owners are extremely tendentious and absolutely hostile to the new government." Proponents of such committees say they are not opposed to freedom of speech, but want it "to be truthful, to reflect the mood of the masses," in Mr. Kuvayev's words. TV station chiefs, however, fear the committees would merely be censorship boards if Communists push through a plan to staff them according to each party's strength in the Duma.

THE Communist Party has been acting with renewed confidence since President Boris Yeltsin last September named Mr. Primakov, a former Soviet apparatchik, to lead a new government in the wake of a major banking crisis. Communist leaders in the Duma are reported to be demanding the monitoring committees in return for their vital support for Primakov's tough budget - up for debate this month.

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At the same time, the Communists and their allies recently enacted legislation to end customs privileges that the press has hitherto enjoyed. This will especially hit liberal newsweeklies such as Itogi that print abroad in order to ensure high quality.

"The motivation is political," claims Itogi's Ms. Lipman. "To crack down on freedoms there is no need at all to introduce censorship in the old Soviet way; they can always use economic pressure to make the media business unprofitable."

Laws granting tax breaks and customs privileges were designed to promote a flourishing media scene after seven decades of Soviet repression, but the real boost has come from big businessmen buying and founding papers and TV stations as lobbying weapons. Banking and oil tycoon Boris Berezovsky, for example, has used the ORT television channel and the daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta to promote his business and political interests, while rival Vladimir Guzinsky founded NTV television, Itogi magazine, and Sevodnya newspaper for the same purposes.

Such figures have been doubly hit by the crisis and its political fallout: They suffered financially from the collapse of the banking system, and also find themselves distanced from power under the new government. Less involved in Kremlin intrigue, and less likely to benefit from insider deals, they may now see less value in their media holdings as ways of wielding influence, media analysts here suggest.

This might offer the prospect of newspapers operating as commercial businesses, living on their earnings rather than on handouts. Mikhail Kozhokin, the newly appointed editor of the influential daily Izvestia, insists that "we consider ourselves businessmen, so we should not look for sponsors," and has developed ambitious plans for a national printing and distribution network so as to boost circulation. At the same time, Mr. Kozhokin holds another post at the paper: He represents Uneximbank, the main shareholder. Uneximbank is the financial empire that profited most from close Kremlin ties in recent years.

In Russia's regions, where a few hundred independent newspapers compete with thousands owned and subsidized by local governments, the prospects are slim for a healthy shakeout from the crisis.

"If all the papers were working in a market-oriented society and this was a market crisis that weeded out the weakest, that would be one thing," says Robert Coalson, who runs the National Press Institute's Media Business Development Service. "But this is a crisis that has been heavily politicized, so those weeded out will be those without subsidies, the ones that are commercially oriented toward their readers."

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