In Media Res: Putin's Unfree Press. (Global Notebook)

By Captain, Alex | Harvard International Review, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

In Media Res: Putin's Unfree Press. (Global Notebook)


Captain, Alex, Harvard International Review


Upon assuming office in January 2000, Russian President Yladimir Putin undertook major efforts to increase state ownership of the media and tighten restrictions on journalistic freedom.

Some of these efforts have resulted in legislation via the normal political process, but Putin has waged his campaign primarily through unilateral, covert action. In perhaps the most blatant illustration of these tactics, he revoked the operating licenses of several television stations in April 2001 without even the pretense of the Duma's approval. After Chechen rebels took hundreds of people hostage in a Moscow theater in November 2002, the Duma passed legislation that barred the press from reporting on state military operations and prohibited the expression of "rebellious views" or the dissemination of "propaganda." Although Putin actually vetoed this specific law, the overall trend to ward state domination of the media is still evident. While this situation does net bode well for the future of Russian democracy, it has rarely evoked any significant protest from the Russian public.

Unlike his communist predecessors, Putin employs an indirect, subtle approach toward censorship that protects his regime from outright condemnation by other governments. Putin prefers to threaten broadcasters with the revocation of their licenses rather than to force them to shut down their operations. This technique has been surprisingly effective at keeping independent broadcasters in line with government policy while masking the extent of Putin's campaign against free media. On occasion, however, Putin has jailed journalists with especially,, dangerous" views. In early 2000, for example, journalist Andrei Babitsky cf the US-sponsored program Radio Liberty was arrested. On several occasions, Babitsky criticized the Russian government's incursions into Chechen villages and its bombardment of Grozny. Russian authorities subsequently arrested and beat him, and he was net released until several months later.

Even though Babitsky's story received widespread international attention, it did net provoke substantive action on the part of Western democracies. The United States simply called Babitsky's ordeal "disturbing." After the September 11 terrorist attacks against the United States, the US government abandoned even this token opposition to Putin's anti-democratic policies in an effort to draw Russia into its coalition against terrorism. This shift in attitude has left the independent Russian media witheut any significant international support. The United States has stopped criticizing Putin's government for pressuring journalists, and Putin has attempted to draw parallels between the US war on terrorism and Russia's intervention in Chechnya. While the United States has not explicitly endorsed this comparison, US President George Bush has also tempered his pre September 11 insistence on Russia's withdrawal from the North Caucasus.

While many Russians realize that Putin's government actively suppresses free speech, few have taken concrete steps to oppose him. In fact, a significant portion of the Russian population actually supports Putin's censorship of the media. In a poll cited by the US magazine Newsweek, a full 57 percent of the respondents in Russia "approved of restoring censorship. …

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