May 23, 2001

Notes of Remarks by Alexander Yevreinov to Members of GCVOA

            Last month commenting on the situation with mass media freedom in Russia, Alexander Solzhenitsyn said, “Everyone is talking about freedom, but no one is speaking about trust.  Meanwhile, truth is more important than freedom.”  I will try to tell you the truth, at least, as I understand it.  In the early nineties my partner and I started publishing one of the first independent newspapers in Russia.  It was the time when private periodicals, radio and TV stations sprouted up like mushrooms after a rainfall.  In the middle of the nineties there were about a dozen independent newspapers in my hometown of Volgograd and two private TV channels.  But after three years we had to close our business down.  In the course of the transition period our readers became much poorer and could not pay the subscription price.  Commercial advertising was not developed and did not bring enough revenues either.
There was another way out, which some of our friends chose.  Facing financial difficulties, mass media companies voluntarily abandoned their freedom in exchange for collaboration with authorities and getting government subsidies.
Now almost all high-circulation newspapers in Volgograd and all TV companies have become either directly owned by the local government or dependent on government subsidies.  Only a few independent outlets remained.  For example, one of my journalist friends publishes an independent weekly in Volgograd.  But to keep his newspaper going he covers part of the expenses with profits from clothing store and some kiosks he owns. Otherwise, it would be not be possible.  Most other editors bow to authorities or oligarchs.
This process had begun long before President Putin came to power.  Although the government does not directly ban or suppress any of the media outlets, most of them are losing independence.  It has not been because of the deliberate policies of the Yeltsin or Putin administrations.  It has been because the economic situation in Russia has become so bad.  If we are to blame anybody, we must blame the editors of the formerly independent media.  They sold their freedom and that of their journalist colleagues for economic security.  But should we really blame them?
These are the facts.  Apart from such true facts there are other ones that may give you the wrong impression about recent developments in Russia.  Some of the Russian nouveau riches, which we call oligarchs, acquired media outlets by using connections to the Yeltsin clan and operated them with funds borrowed from the government.  Feeling now the pressure of the new administration and law-enforcement agencies because of their misuse of funds and other suspect dealings, the best defense they found was to declare that they were victims of an “authoritarian regime.”  Knowing that they would not find much support at home and that the West is sensitive to these issues, they made appeals directly to the West.
You probably know that the former owner of the Media-Most Holding Company, Vladimir Gusinsky, founded NTV with low interest government loans as a favor for supporting President Yeltsin during his re-election campaign in 1996.  He never paid those loans back and, it seems, never intended to.  So by right this property was claimed by those to whom it belongs-the Russian Gas Company Gazprom which is forty percent owned by the state.
Gusinsky knows that he is not popular in Russia; that is why he looks for support abroad, not at home.  After his detention and release last year his aides visited half a dozen European countries and the USA in search of support, while neither he, nor his aides traveled for a similar purpose to any Russian city.  Last year I wrote a letter inviting him to speak in Volgograd.  I tried to reach out to him through members of the Volgograd Jewish community.  Each time he replied politely that he would like to come and speak but for the time being he was busy
Of course, NTV and the other media outlets Gusinsky once controlled did not reflect the views of just Gusinsky.  Each had a staff of highly qualified reporters and editors.  It came a great shock for them to learn that suddenly, overnight, they had a new employer.  They had built NTV through their efforts and through their efforts it became immensely popular.
            In Soviet times we used to have only one employer, the state.  So if a new factory manager came, it did not mean a great change for the employees.  They had to obey the same rules, and no one could alter them.  Now it has changed, and we Russians are not accustomed to the new order.  These days frequently one can see Russian TV footage of workers occupying their factory and refusing to let the new owners take it over.  Sometimes the new owners can get access to the premises only with the help of the police.  This is capitalism, you know.  I read many stories in your newspapers about mergers and hostile takeovers of US media outlets.  In the majority of cases all the key editors have to go.
Of course, the relationship between the owners of a media outlet and the staff can bring on big problems.  However, I was satisfied with the resolution respecting freedom of mass media adopted in Strasbourg by the Council of Europe last April.  This resolution stressed the necessity for all owners of media outlets, whether state or private, to respect the freedom and independence of its journalists.
What to do now?  Is it the end of freedom of speech in Russia now that most media outlets are state-owned?  In my mind the answer to this question is no.  Freedom of the press is not synonymous with private, nor for that matter state, ownership.  For example, major TV companies in Europe are state-owned: ARD in Germany and BBC in Britain.  Do you know when Russian journalists enjoyed the greatest freedom and independence in Russia?  During the last years of Communism under Mikhail Gorbachev, when all mass media wee state owned.
When I buy a loaf of bread I do not care which bakery made it- a private one or a state owned one.  I only want the bread to be tasty and fresh.  The same with a newspaper I buy or a TV program I watch.  I do not care who their boss is.  I want to learn what is going on in the world and preferably get a true and accurate picture of events.  Unfortunately, in Russia “private” does not always mean “high quality”.  The most notorious and biased Russian TV commentators worked at the private TV channel controlled by the Russian oligarch, Boris Berezovsky.
According to a recent poll 90 per cent of the journalists of both private and state-owned media said that in their work they felt responsibility not to their readers or viewers, but to their employer.  The problem is not whether ownership is state or private, but whether the approach is pluralistic or monolithic.  Besides, I am convinced that under present economic conditions in Russia private TV cannot be operated profitably as there is too much cost and too little revenue.  So for the time being, all major TV channels will be state-owned.  As the market for commercial advertising grows, there will be more favorable opportunities for developing private media outlets.
To ensure freedom and impartial editorial policy of state-owned TV companies there must be parliamentary control through supervisory boards.  Currently, there are five political parties in the Federal Duma, some of them opposed to President Putin.  Some time ago there were proposals to organize such supervisory boards, which must ensure the integrity of the editorial policies and balanced news coverage.  But guess who is most opposed to these proposals?  The media editors and reporters.  Why?
I think the real reason for the opposition of editors and reporters to supervision by a Parliamentary appointed board has been hushed up both in the Russian and Western media.  We often talk about widespread corruption in the Russian government, but do you really think that other Russians are immune to such corruption?  Corruption is so dangerous because like cancer it affects all parts of the organism.  Many rank and file journalists, and I believe, all editors-in-chief, do not want to be subjected to any public control because their trade has served as a source of taking in shady income.
Take the now famous NTV example.  I become suspicious when a media outlet starts excessively praising some politician or business figure.  I think the outlet is doing this for money or other advantage.  I also am skeptical when a newspaper starts tarnishing a figure from head to toe.  In such cases I am trying to guess who has paid off the media organ for this campaign and why.  NTV has often been called in the Western media “an opposition channel”, or the “last opposition channel”.  But what is “the opposition channel” in the US?  Under former management before the recent takeover NTV had targeted President Putin and its main shareholder, Gazprom, for exaggerated, overblown criticism.  Why did this happen? To avoid being pressed to pay off their obligations to Gazprom?
Some may call this drumfire of criticism “freedom of the press”, but I call it biased reporting for ulterior reasons.  I am not surprised that all of the leading NYV journalists moved over to Channel 6 TV, a station owned by Boris Berezovsky, one of the oligarchs.  Berezovksy was as notorious as any of his fellow oligarchs for flagrantly mixing money and politics.
As I see the Russian mass media situation now, it is far from perfect.  But Russia as a whole is far from perfect.  And the problems with the independence of Russian media are the same as those that permeate the rest of the country: poverty, corruption, and lawlessness.
There is no doubt that in Russia there is more democracy and freedom than there was ten years ago.  Nor can anyone claim that Russia has reached the desired level of freedom and democracy.
But the takeover of NTV by Gazprom does not signal the end of democracy in Russia.  Such a huge country with such deep and wide- spread problems cannot in the course of a few years turn into a prosperous economy and a full-fledged democracy.  No one can help us achieve this but ourselves.  Yet neither we Russians nor you outsiders should expect miracles.  The road to democracy is a long one.  Many nations followed the road to democracy for centuries before they became what we now call “a civil society”.


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