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Mr. Levy and the Magic Media

Message Nicolai Petro
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Sharon Tennison, President of the Center for Citizen Initiatives in San Franciso, recently launched a blog entitled “Russia: Other Points of View (ROPV).” 

According to its web site, “ROPV's  mission is to provide a forum where points of view on Russia other than those written by key journalists and pundits, can be found.  We do this by analyzing current articles in the major mainstream media, for their adherence to professional standards of objective journalism including omission of key facts and 16 other criteria.  We aren't argumentative but feel that all who watch Russia assiduously deserve to have a voice.”

Anyone interested in the media's coverage of Russia should visit this site often. My first contribution, posted this week, is a comment on Clifford Levy’s piece, “It Isn't Magic: Putin's Opponents are Made to Vanish from TV,” which appeared in the New York Times on June 3, 2008.

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It is nice to know that some foreign correspondents in Russia read the local press. That way they can eventually pick up stories that were covered months ago and present them as something novel that they discovered on their own.

Last September, economist Mikhail Delyagin was invited to participate in a discussion of the state's role in the economy by the producers of the popular television program "People Want to Know." When the segment aired on October 13, however, two scenes where he appeared on camera were edited out, one so sloppily that part of his lower torso could still be seen in the chair (clips available on YouTube).  A week later, television critic Irina Petrovskaya brought the incident to light on Echo of Moscow radio, and for the next few weeks discussions of censorship and "stop lists" were the rage in the Russian press and internet.

Recently, Clifford J. Levy of the New York Time's bureau in Moscow chose to revisit the incident in an article that accuses Putin of censoring his political opponents. In this article, as Delyagin now recalls it, "he had some tart words about Vladimir V. Putin," which is why "he has for some time resided on the so-called stop list, a roster of political opponents and other critics of the government who have been barred from TV news and political talk shows by the Kremlin."

In interviews he gave at the time, however, Delyagin recollected things a bit differently. "The program," he said, "was routine, I can't recall anything momentous about it."

"Personally, I said nothing seditious either during, before, or after the show." The whole thing was a big mystery since "I've been on TVC plenty of times." He ruled out the possibility that it could be connected to either the upcoming elections or to some sort of "internal stop-list" by the station owners, stating that he "knew for a fact" that this was not so. The source, therefore, "must be higher up," and his prior assertions to the contrary notwithstanding, this insight is dutifully reported by Levy as fact.

But since the incident itself was widely discussed by Russian journalists at the time, something that Levy neglects to tell his readers, some of the conclusions that they drew at the time should also be of interest.

The first, as the popular news magazine Sobesednik that broke the story notes, is that "one should not demonize the authorities. They forbid almost nothing, relying [instead] on the self-censorship of the top brass [i.e., station managers—NP]."

The second is that, even if such lists do exist (an assertion still hotly contested by some in the industry), they are the creation of station management, which is why they differ from station to station. As such, they reflect the timidity of television producers who are afraid of going against prevailing social norms, not any concerted policy on the part of political authorities to stifle dissent.

And finally, indirectly confirming that the Kremlin is most likely not the source of such lists (at least today), Sobesednik reminds readers of how prevalent black lists were during the Yeltsin years, before Gazprom-Media took over Gusinsky's NTV for its loan defaults and Boris Berezovsky sold his shares of ORT, when each was personally involved in keeping the others' favorite television personalities off of the channels he controlled.

Self-censorship in the media, and the reasons for it, are issues that need to be thoroughly aired, both in Russia and in the United States. Reflexively casting all the blame on Putin for ending media freedom in Russia, however, does nothing to help us understand why it exists, or how to overcome it.


Marina Suranova, “Otkuda nogi torchat?Sobesednik No. 42, October 29, 2007.

Tsenzura ostavila ot Mikhaila Delyagina tol’ko nogi i kharakternyi zhest,” Russia Week, October 21, 2007.

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Nicolai N. Petro is professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island. He has served as special assistant for policy in the U.S. State Department and as civic affairs advisor to the mayor of the Russian city of Novgorod the Great. His books include: The Rebirth of Russian Democracy (Harvard,1995), Russian Foreign Policy (Longman, 1997), and (more...)

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