'Meet the press' in Russia meets the new censor
It was nothing unusual when Andrei Kolesnikov, a leading newspaper columnist, was invited last week to appear on Svoboda Slova, one of Russian TV's hottest public-affairs talk shows.
But Mr. Kolesnikov says he was astonished when asked to come a day early - because the show, whose name means "Freedom of the Word," is known for its live cut-and-thrust political dialogue.
"The host apologized to me and said he's not happy about this at all," says Kolesnikov. "But all the main talk shows have switched to being pre-recorded recently, because they're scared" by a new election law that could shut them down for remarks that authorities deem improper.
It smacks strongly of Soviet times - except that today's censors are not Communist Party hacks planted in editorial offices, but the managers of media outlets themselves.
Ostensibly, the law is aimed at curbing the "black PR," or bought-and-paid coverage that marked previous Russian elections.
But its effect is to ban virtually all independent political commentary, analysis, or forecasting during the parliamentary election campaign that began last week and runs until Dec. 7.
"The media are being blocked from playing their role as a public control mechanism," says Oleg Panfilov, head of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, an independent press watchdog. "If there is no public oversight, how can we be sure criminals won't get elected?"
The law forbids - but defines vaguely - any sort of electoral "advocacy," and would seem to reduce reporters to little more than stenographers.
After two violations, an offending newspaper, radio, or TV station can be shut down. With the campaign season barely begun, the Central Election Commission, in charge of enforcing the law, has already issued a warning to Novaya Gazeta, a newspaper known for its investigative reporting.
Sergei Bolshakov, a Central Election Commission official and one of the new law's authors, offered guidance to journalists in a recent newspaper interview through the following example: Suppose there is a candidate who promises free apartments to voters if he or she is elected. Journalists may report that fact, he said, but must refrain from any commentary about the candidate or his track record, even if he had pledged free apartments in a previous election but never delivered - "because that is not information, it is your analysis and is not appropriate as information," Mr. Bolshakov said.
Moreover, Bolshakov warned, if a media outlet decides to cover any of the 44 political parties running for parliament, it must give equal space and treatment to all of them. Critics say this requirement is surreal, since only about four major parties have much chance of gaining the 5 percent minimum vote needed to enter parliament.
The Kremlin-backed law is seen as particularly threatening to the Communist Party and to Yabloko - both powerful opposition forces who would be equated in the media with such tiny newcomers as the Conceptual Party of Unification.
"It's ridiculous and counterproductive to force journalists to pay equal attention to every single candidate, the unknowns and famous leaders alike," says Valery Fyodorov, director of the independent Center for Political Trends. "How are the media supposed to work at all under such conditions?"
The restrictions have some journalists scrambling for strategies to continue doing their jobs. The staff at Nezavisimaya Gazeta, an opposition newspaper owned by exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky, briefly discussed boycotting all election coverage in protest. "But we decided that if we went on strike, it wouldn't be the Kremlin's problem - it would be our problem," says Maxim Glikin, the paper's political-affairs editor. "We just have to work around the law, by writing indirectly about the elections. Readers will know what we mean."
In Soviet times, newspaper readers were skilled at searching mezhdu strokami, or between the lines, and journalists often used innocuous metaphors or Aesopian language to get their critical messages across. "It's getting to be a bit like that again, but I'm not worried," says Mr. Glikin. "We shall have to weigh every word, like gold, and think carefully about how to deploy each idea. I believe my job is very serious, and very necessary today."
Vladimir Pribylovsky, head of the independent Panorama think tank in Moscow, says he recently wrote a hard-hitting op-ed piece for a major newspaper about the election campaign in St. Petersburg but simply changed the name of the place he was talking about to "Persia." So far, he's gotten away with it.
Kolesnikov says he, too, will try to sidestep the law in his weekly political-affairs column in the pro-government daily Izvestia. "I shall write about the general state of the country, about subjects close to the elections, but not necessarily the elections themselves," he says.
Even critics admit the law will probably reduce the unethical practice of some Russian journalists hiring themselves out to the highest bidder at election time. But they complain that the baby of press freedom is being ejected along with the bath water of corruption.
"I am a political journalist, and this law violates my rights as a citizen," says Konstantin Katanyan, a columnist with the independent Vremya-MN newspaper. "Our authorities are so afraid of (abuses) that they decided to prohibit everything." Mr. Katanyan has launched a challenge to the law through the constitutional court, claiming that it violates the Russian Constitution's guarantee of freedom of speech.
Critics are also skeptical that the law, as administered by the Kremlin-appointed election commission, will do anything to curb the widespread use of official power and resources to promote pro-government candidates.
For example, in early September, President Vladimir Putin spoke out to endorse his chosen St. Petersburg gubernatorial candidate Valentina Matveyenko during an official, televised meeting. Human rights groups pointed out that Mr. Putin's remarks violated the election law's ban on advocacy. When asked about it, the head of Russia's Central Election Commission, Alexander Veshnyakov, simply blamed the media for broadcasting the president's statement.
"All laws function in Russia in a kind of selective way, but some laws seem to be written specially to permit bosses to use them in certain cases and not in others," says analyst Mr. Pribylovsky. "This law may prevent candidates from engaging in 'black PR' but it will not stop official resources" from being mobilized to sway the voters.
Only a handful of print and Internet outlets, including Vremya-MN and the English-language Moscow Times, have made it clear they will attempt to cover the elections professionally even if it incurs the wrath of authorities.
Noting the lack of a robust challenge, Alexander Konovalov, director of the Institute for Strategic Assessments, an independent think tank in Moscow, says: "A strong, combative media is crucial to a healthy society, but ours has shown itself to be weak and immature."