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Perspective
Volume VIII, Number 1 (September-October 1997)

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The High Cost of a "Free" Press
VITALY KOROTICH
Former editor-in-chief, Ogonyok

A Russian wit might be tempted to pose the question, "What is the difference between 1987 and 1997?" and respond "then we had one Pravda, now we have three!" Two versions of Pravda, including a weekly tabloid, are owned by a company headed by the Greek millionaire Yanos Yannikos. Pravda's former New York correspondent Viktor Linnik owns the third. All three differ very little in their layout and appearance, are sold at the same newsstands, and represent similar points of view. The old communist daily which was a legendary part of the totalitarian Soviet system did not die with the communist state; instead, it multiplied.

In Russia the word "freedom" is frequently used and yet poorly understood. The popular negative 19th-century Russian conception of freedom as a condition bordering on anarchy has given way to other connotations. The notions of a free market, free elections, and a free press are continually redefined through experience. When the democratic reforms began, journalists, like many others, believed in miracles--especially that the system could be corrected rapidly, easily and at little personal cost. This turned out to be a mass delusion. The media did not emerge as champions of justice and the common good; in many cases they became a part of the corrupt political process.

The possibility of realizing the early '90s ideal of an ocean of free press, where each vessel's crew charts any course it wishes, grows increasingly remote. If this ideal described the Russian media, the question of whose views are represented in a particular publication would have a very transparent and banal answer: the editorial board. The fact that analysts of contemporary Russian politics continue to labor over tracing the ownership of influential media outlets and the attendant connections to the political elite suggests that Russia's "free press" is quite different from that ideal. When the Communist Party controlled everything, it was easy to determine who influenced any given paper and to what end. Despite the overabundance of bureaucrats in the country, formally there was no propaganda ministry; instead there was the department for propaganda and agitation under the Communist Party Headquarters, the famous and powerful "agitprop." Since then several years have passed and the rule of the Communist Party has come to an end, but the question of ownership and control over the mass media retains its significance for analyzing and forecasting political events.

The Bolshevik approach to mass media, in which all information sources serve as propaganda tools in the battle for political power, remains the dominant attitude. Government structures, political organizations, banks, as well as industrial and financial companies compete for influence over the press and television to position themselves favorably for the parliamentary and presidential elections due to be held again in a few years. In most cases, tracing the financial backing of any given publication poses a manageable task. Except for the communist and fascist publications, which tend to hide such information, the ownership structure is relatively transparent.

The giant gas company formerly headed by Viktor Chernomyrdin, Gazprom, controls the newspapers Trud, Sel'skaya Zhisn' and Delo. Vladimir Gusinky's Media-Most group funds the papers Segodnya, Sem' dnei and the journal Itogi. Inkombank supports the paper Vek, while Boris Berezovsky's company owns Nezavisimaya gazeta, Vechernyi klub and the Moscow Pravda. The bank Menatep owns Literaturnaya gazeta and the English-language publication Moscow Times. Yet, such lists are highly ephemeral since the competition for publications is ongoing, frequently very traumatic and, on some occasions, violent.

In fact, the battle for control of the press has become just as merciless as the battle for political power. Almost all the chief editors of major Russian papers with whom I met this summer drive only in the company of their bodyguards and some have bullet-proof automobiles. Their apprehension denotes how dangerous the profession has become; during the last several months, three directors of prominent publishing houses have been killed.

The corporate owners do not expect to make a profit from the publications they own. Their eagerness to invest in the media stems from political goals and ambitions. Many believe the press has immense power to build or demolish the careers of public figures. As Nezavisimaya gazeta explained on May 30, 1997, "an article in a newspaper with a circulation of several dozen thousand can grind a crooked businessman or public official into fine powder."

Over the last ten to fifteen years the newspaper Izvestia was one of the most stable and respected information outlets. For this reason the largest banks were willing to wage a minor war over the paper this summer. When ONEXIMBank won, it became clear that the paper would represent the interest of the banker Vladimir Potanin, head of ONEXIMBank and a close ally of Anatoli Chubais. As a result of the sale the entire editorial board of the paper, which had been critical of Chubais, was fired. Potanin's and Chubais' rivals, Gusinsky and Berezovsky, came up with the funds to start a new paper (also to be called Izvestia) and recruited members of the former editorial staff--including Otto Latsis, Sergei Agafonov and the editor in chief, Igor Golembiowski. Thus, starting in October, Russia will have two papers called Izvestia, one for Chubais and one for Berezovsky.

This summer's episode with Izvestia is far from the only occasion when a new paper has emerged from an established older publication. Recently Potanin bought Komsomol'skaya pravda, one of the largest Russian newspapers; some of its staff had already left to start a new publication, Novaya zhizn. A few years ago Segodnya split off from Nezavisimaya gazeta. Such fracturing of major publications has meant that each new paper represents the views of its new financial backers.

It is now possible to publish just about anything without divulging any information about how the publication is financed. The hundreds of readily available fascist and communist periodicals that propagandize all manner of racist, antisemitic and revanchist ideas hide the identities of their financial backers. At one time there was a paper devoted entirely to the views and opinions of Libya's odious leader, Muammar Khadafy. The authorities enforce the law on the mass media sporadically, as is the case with much of Russia's legislation; in practice the main prerequisite for registering a publication is paying the fee.

In the West the traditional concept of "mass media" which presumes a mass audience has given way to newer ideas about group segmentation and differentiation. In Moscow this has reached extreme proportions: Fifteen daily papers are published there, probably the highest per capita number for any city in the world. This statistic does not include the huge market for tabloids as well as weekly and monthly publications, many of which cater to specific audiences, such as a popular gay newspaper with a monthly circulation of several hundred thousand. This diversification has not improved the quality and variety of reporting; instead the papers are becoming increasingly difficult to decipher. To glean the news, one has to sift through mountains of unverified, biased information and tabloid-style character assassinations.

It is hardly surprising then that the influence of the press has deteriorated. Readership has declined, only in part due to the rising price of subscriptions but also because many consumers are annoyed with what is obviously slanted reporting. In the early '90s the total circulation of Russian newspapers and journals was 220 million copies. During the past five years it has declined to 20.8 million copies in the center and 22 million in the regions. During the first six months of this year the circulation of Moscow papers fell to 8.6 million.(1) The regional press is even more dependent on financial supporters since it is being pressured on all sides by local and national political figures. The circulation of regional papers has not dropped as sharply as that of Moscow papers, but in comparison the content of regional publications is even more primitive than in Moscow and their financial condition is by far more bleak.

The image of the journalist has also taken a beating in the last few years. Mainly, the journalist is no longer seen as someone who serves the public interest and warns of various dangers. Eight years ago I was elected, solely on the merit of my reputation as a journalist and an author, to serve as a member of parliament for constituency 58 in Khar'kov, a city I had never before visited. This could not happen now. Today the relationship between the press, the bankers and the government is such that journalists are most often seen as representatives of the establishment and not as defenders of the public interest.

According to public opinion polls, 15 percent of Moscow residents do not read newspapers; 53 percent do not read magazines. Overall in Moscow oblast, 56 percent do not subscribe to any publication.(2) By American standards these numbers do not sound so strange, but in Russia most periodicals typically are sold by subscription rather than at the newsstands, as is conventional in the US. Now 80 percent of Russians rely for news primarily on television. The transition from a public that obtains most of its news via newspaper subscriptions to one that depends on television has changed the character of the news audience; the very nature of the medium renders it more passive. As with periodical literature the owners of the television channels tend to be large financial corporations or banks. The group Media-Most owns NTV; Boris Berezovsky controls Russian Public Television (ORT); the Moscow mayor's office controls the channel TV Center; and the government still controls 51 percent of the Russian First Television Channel. (3)

Despite the apparent boom in the number of publications and the continuous change and disarray in the market, journalists themselves are not really free: Individual publications are tightly controlled. For instance at Ogonyok, the magazine that I edited in the 1980s and early '90s, most employees work under renewable two-month contracts. This means that a noncompliant journalist can be fired easily. Many owners avoid paying payroll taxes by providing very low official salaries; at the end of the month most employees receive an envelope containing a few hundred or thousand dollars, depending on their status. This illegal mode of payment cannot be regulated and places the journalist in an even more vulnerable position. The mass media outlets have already lost much of the direct public funding they received previously and now they stand to lose the few remaining tax breaks. This development will render them even more dependent on--and vulnerable to--pressure from their financial backers.

The pressure on publications extends to their editorial content. I asked the chief editor of a major Russian paper why that paper avoids certain sensitive topics. "Ten years ago, even five years ago that kind of reporting would have been possible, but now I would be fired immediately or even killed," he told me. Over the last four years I have consistently asked that question of many different editors and have always received the same response. The critical content and political slant that appears in a given paper is closely monitored and controlled by its owners. My former colleagues at Ogonyok complained that Berezovsky had installed a personal representative who reviews every item before publication. The well-publicized cases, such as the murder of editor Vadim Biryukov, who had worked for a business-oriented journal in Moscow, and the removal of Igor Golembiowski from Izvestia, testify to a general insecurity in the profession.

In 1992 I wrote in Perspective about the financial crisis the Russian press was facing. Newspapers were receiving fewer government subsidies while their paper and printing costs were rising sharply. In January 1992 alone, 20 newspapers announced that they would cease publication. In the absence of sufficient advertising revenues and government subsidies, the newspapers and television channels adjusted to market pressure by attracting powerful financial backers. As one paper wrote this summer, "Many of our publications are beginning to reek of oil. Large financial-industrial groups have captured control over various publications... The chain is simple: government--a financial-industrial group--the mass media outlet. Hidden forms of censorship are thus ensured, and the façade of respectability is maintained."(4) Large companies may have saved the papers from financial ruin, but they have also imposed limitations more rigorous than those of the glasnost' period.

Notes:
1 Vecherneya Moskva, 23 June 1995, 19 June 1997.
2 Ogonyok, May 1995 (No. 18).
3 Moskovsky komsomolets, 12 August 1997.
4 Vek, July 1997 (No. 27).

 

Copyright ISCIP 1997
Unless otherwise indicated, all articles appearing in this journal have been commissioned especially for
Perspective.




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