An Island of Glasnost in Russian Media

Times Staff Writer

The closure of the last independent Russian TV station in June left the country's most talented and fearless journalists with a final refuge in television. At Ekho-TV, a small Moscow studio, they can say what they like, but their broadcasts are never seen on any channel in the country.

While the banner of independent television in Russia has been torn down, Ekho-TV is like a small forlorn corner, beaming news to expatriate Russians around the world.

Ekho-TV's isolation underscores a reality of post-Soviet media: Independent outlets have quietly withered, some would say suffocated, under the presidency of Vladimir V. Putin. New media rules have sparked a storm of protest about censorship and increasing control of the media.

Among other prohibitions, new laws make it illegal for the media to comment on elections. With parliamentary and presidential elections approaching, more than 100 lawmakers have challenged the new rules in the Constitutional Court.

As successive independent stations have come under state control or closed for financial reasons in the last three years, the Kremlin has denied any involvement in their downfall. The new media rules were supposedly designed to stop mudslinging in elections, but they in effect mean any media outlet that scrutinizes a candidate's policies can be closed until the election is over.

During the last five years, the heady media of the early 1990s have been whittled away, reversing gains made under former Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, who introduced glasnost, or openness. Newspaper readership and profitability have fallen dramatically.

Former President Boris N. Yeltsin tolerated independent television like a grouchy bear making the occasional swipe at a small, pesky dog.

But Putin, a former lieutenant colonel in the KGB, has consciously strangled independent television and reined in media freedom to choke opposition and maintain a firmer grip on Russia, critics say.

With no one to dig up the dirt on regional bureaucrats and corrupt officials, some warn that the decline in fearless independent media may eventually backfire on the Kremlin, leaving it isolated and in the dark about events in Russia.

Ekho-TV is bound by the new rules banning election commentary. But since it only broadcasts outside Russia, authorities don't pay any attention, said Ekho-TV deputy director Andrei Norkin.

Ekho-TV news programs are beamed to Russian-speaking audiences in countries including Israel, Germany and the United States via an Israeli satellite network owned by Vladimir A. Gusinsky, an exiled Russian media boss. Ten years ago, Gusinsky founded NTV, an independent station that frequently clashed with the Kremlin and was finally taken over by a state-controlled operation in 2001.

Norkin was recently nominated for the country's top television award, even though his face is only a memory to the Russian public, mainly from his NTV days.

Another familiar face at Ekho-TV is Vladimir Kara-Murza, a former news anchor at NTV, who trailed through three successive independent stations that were taken over by state interests or closed for financial reasons. When TVS, Russia's last independent station, closed in June, he got a job in a boiler room, vowing that he would never work for state television.

His protest recalls those of Soviet-era intellectuals who toiled as janitors and boiler operators rather than cooperate with the totalitarian state. He's still on the books at the boiler room, but like the intellectuals of yesteryear, rarely shows up for work.

"If you're a boiler room operator, there's no gap underneath to fall into," said Kara-Murza, who declared that he can live without fame.

In the Soviet era, after university, Kara-Murza didn't have "a proper job." He gave private lessons on Soviet history, but in the post-Soviet economic collapse gave that up to be a janitor.

An old university colleague, Oleg Dobrodeev, then head of NTV, plucked him from anonymity and made him an anchor. Now Dobrodeev is head of state channel RTR, and the two no longer speak.

Kara-Murza feels contempt for some of his old independent television colleagues who went to NTV when it was under state control.

"I think state television is absolutely shameful," static and suffocating, he said. Even the diction recalls the style of Soviet-era presenters, he said.

Kara-Murza's late night news program on Ekho-TV covers all the issues journalists working for state-controlled media shy away from: the forthcoming parliamentary elections, the Chechnya conflict, power shutdowns and, of course, the censorship rules.

Now in force, the rules ban any media comment that could encourage someone to vote for or against a candidate.

"Today, every media outlet in Russia has to operate under a threat of a summary closure any second, right up to the moment when the elections are over," said Boris Y. Nemtsov, leader of the Union of Right Forces party, who organized the constitutional appeal against the rule.

He complained that the state-controlled media were covering every move of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party but ignoring everyone else.

"The situation is very Orwellian: Everybody is equal, but some are more equal than others. The party of power enjoys immunity from the law," he said.

Oleg Panfilov, director of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, a Russian group that advocates media freedom, said the media rules have gradually undermined Russian democracy. A major concern is that the rules enable authorities to shut down any outlet for the term of an election.

"Even two weeks of not being able to publish is a death sentence to almost any Russian newspaper," he said. "And one can count profitable newspapers left in Russia on the fingers of one hand."

Norkin, Ekho-TV's deputy director, said Putin and his followers believe they can only govern Russia tightly and introduce the changes they plan if media outlets are cowed and obedient.

"No one will be allowed to talk openly, because there's a belief that open conversation and frank reports only harm the overall atmosphere. We've seen it before, when information was hushed up, and nothing good comes of it," he said, referring to the Soviet era. "Now with the spread of the Internet, it becomes harder and harder to keep hushing things up and concealing things. And it takes greater and greater and more administrative efforts to do it. I think there will be a backlash."

Analysts predict that the Kremlin will keep the media under tight control until after the 2004 election.

Inside the clutter and bustle of the tiny Ekho-TV newsroom, there's a sad echo of the days when the building was the heart of Gusinsky's Media-Most group and home to the country's most fearless journalists. Now the corridors are almost deserted, but visitors can occasionally spot one of yesterday's heroes.

Norkin hopes that someday the pendulum will swing and independent journalism will return to Russia.

"I hope there will be a festival in our street as well, sooner or later," Norkin said. "Losing your heart is the wrong way to go."

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