A recent New York Times editorial (February 12) claims that Vladimir Putin stifled Russia’s free press. That’s not the first time this accusation has been leveled. Last year, the International Herald Tribune ran the headline, “Kasparov: Putin killed Russia free press.” The Toronto Star wrote, “Free press under siege in Russia.” Right on theme, Reporters Without Borders earlier proclaimed, “...independent press has all but disappeared in Russia.”
What’s the hoax here? It’s the idea that there was actually a free press to stifle or kill. In reality, there was none.
Right from the start of the Russian Federation, the Yeltsin administration nipped press freedom in the bud. It imposed laws that gave media companies little hope of operating profitably. And without profitability, the press had no way of achieving independence. Instead, the media companies became dependent, not free, and most remain so today.
Where does the money come from to operate unprofitable media companies? It comes from governors, mayors, and other public officials, as well as from business tycoons and state owned industrial enterprises. They aren’t just wackos intent on throwing their money down the drain. They’re getting something in return. It’s the ability to color the news in their own favor. As a result, the Russian media is awash in puff pieces paid for by the financial backers and attack pieces aimed at their political or business rivals.
The media outlets that are doing this aren’t free to serve their consumers. They are subservient to their financial backers. These media outlets are indentured, not free. It is true that in the course of this decade, the Kremlin itself has unwisely come to control more media outlets than before. But, they were not media outlets that were previously free.
Adding to the free press hoax is the sub-plot about murdered journalists. It is encapsulated in the Der Spiegel headline, “Russian journalist murdered: Is Russia's Press Freedom Dead?” What was the connection between journalist Anna Politkovskaya and the state of press freedom? Trudy Rubin, writing for the Philadelphia Inquirer, explains the allegation: “She’s the 13th Russian journalist killed in a contract-style murder since Russian President Vladimir Putin took office in 2000… This vicious killing is a reminder of how far Russia has swerved back toward authoritarianism under Putin.”
The prevalent theme is that there have been unprecedented murders of journalists since Putin came to power. But, like the claim that Putin stifled a free press, this allegation is not supported by the facts, either. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 15 journalists were murdered during the period of Putin’s presidency. What the “murdered journalist” stories fail to report is that in the previous 8-year period, there were 31 murders! In other words, under Putin, the number of journalists killed was more than cut in half.
Why are these factually unsupported stories, half-truths and all, continually popping up in the Western media? Is this an intentional hoax? If it’s not, how can so many news outlets be so consistently wrong?
One factor to consider is the apathy of journalists who have insufficient knowledge of Russia to cover it authoritatively. Many of them realize their audience cares little about Russia, as attested to in reader surveys. Therefore, they may be willing to run with a story without really checking it out.
But where are the fact-deficit stories coming from in the first place? That is a topic that I investigated in the case of Alexander Litvinenko. He was the reputed former spy who died in London of polonium poisoning. The organizers of the World Congress of the International Federation of Journalists commissioned me to study the media coverage of Litvinenko’s poisoning. An abridged copy of the report I presented to the Congress meeting in Moscow can be seen at: www.russiaprofile.org/page.php?pageid=Politics&articleid=a1180613251.
What I found is that much of the Western news coverage of Litvinenko was not factually based. The fanciful version of events contained in most Western reports was apparently the product of a business tycoon who had fled Russia to avoid criminal prosecution. He engaged a well-known London PR agent to manage the propagation of the story, including the distribution of a hospital-bed photo of Litvinenko that was carried by news outlets worldwide.
Amid all this misinformation associated with the matter of Russia’s purported free press, there is a moral to the story. The take-away point is that the next time you see a news report of a crackdown on Russia’s free press, you’ll know to look elsewhere for factual and balanced reportage. (New York Times, take note.)