Russian media growing more dependent on pro-government business
MOSCOW (AP) _ Freed from decades of censorship, Russia’s media have exercised their independence noisily and enthusiastically for much of the 1990s since the Soviet Union collapsed.
But now some journalists and analysts worry that media independence is under threat as major corporations and tycoons with strong Kremlin ties buy major stakes in leading newspapers and television stations.
After struggling to get by on government subsidies far less lavish than in the Soviet era, the cash-strapped press has turned to big business for help. For many it’s a matter of survival _ the cost of doing business has skyrocketed and newspaper readership has plummeted.
Some media watchers are concerned the new ties to companies with government links have led to more pro-government news coverage.
Creeping government and business influence over the media is ``a soft form of authoritarianism,″ says Sergei Markov of the Carnegie Foundation think tank in Moscow.
Their financial dependence makes the media much less free than before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, he says.
``They have to pay for this money with their own independence.″
Evidence of possible media dependence surfaced this year when many news outlets reversed years of criticism of Boris Yeltsin and campaigned openly for the president’s re-election.
The Kremlin and its business allies co-opted TV stations and newspapers, getting willing support from many journalists who feared that a Communist victory would end press freedom.
Since then, the media have been undergoing a corporate makeover that troubles advocates of an independent press.
For instance, the liberal daily Izvestia sold a 20 percent stake this month to Russia’s largest oil company, Lukoil. One of the country’s most respected newspapers, Izvestia was one of the last big dailies without government or corporate funding.
The editor in chief, Igor Golembiovsky, insists that Izvestia’s coverage will remain unbiased, but acknowledges that the paper’s most pressing task is ``not to lose our controlling interest.″
He says money was badly needed to restore Izvestia as a true nationwide paper and fund the establishment of 16 to 18 regional editions. Current circulation of under 600,000 pales with the 12.5 million subscribers in 1990 when it was still the Soviet government newspaper.
``As soon as the independence of the media ends in Russia, all hope for progress in a democratic society can be buried with it,″ he said in an interview.
The new players in the media market are economic giants with millions of dollars riding on government decisions. The new moguls are wealthy businessmen whose support helped Yeltsin win re-election and who claim to be a major force behind Kremlin policy.
Business and media tycoons Vladimir Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky, who recently was named the government’s deputy security chief, have substantial media holdings, including leading TV stations.
Russia’s richest company, natural gas monopoly Gazprom, and the Menatep financial and oil conglomerate also are buying up large media stakes.
``During Communist times, our press and television reported to the Communist Party leadership. Now they report to political and business tycoons,″ Yasen Zasursky, journalism dean at Moscow State University, was quoted by The Moscow Tribune as saying.
Even in the post-Soviet rush to democracy, the media never broke completely free of government shackles. Most newspapers still get substantial government subsidies, and outside the capital most remain controlled by regional or local authorities.
Those subsidies and the growing links to pro-government business have raised questions about whether the media will be as aggressive in the future about challenging the status quo.
``The incestuous link between Russian government and business, and the great power corporate and financial interests are wielding in the Russian media, result in relative decline in freedom of the press,″ said Ariel Cohen, senior policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank.