The Once and Future Soviet Press -- The Once and Future New York Times

(Center for Defense Information, Johnson's Russia List, December 7, 2004)

By William Dunkerley

A recent New York Times editorial about press freedom in post-Soviet states is good drama. Entitled, "The Once and Future Soviet Press" (NYT, Nov 28, 2004), it digs into this timely and important topic. But it offers opinion based on facts that aren't facts. The Times alleges that "...the right of a free press has slowly and steadily come under attack." That's an intriguing story line. It suggests an unfolding, high-stakes plot, and creates a sense of mystery about who's to blame! It's Putin, the Times asserts. "The Russian president has steadily eroded press freedoms in this country..." Fanning the reader's growing sense of outrage, the editorial adds that, "...the Russian media that once showed so much promise is now, under Putin, turning to the Chinese model..."

None of that is factually based. The story does conform, however, to the mythology about Russian press freedom that has been promoted widely by the likes of outcast media moguls Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky.

Here are the facts: Since the inception of the Russian Federation, media outlets have not had the strength and independence to tell the truth. Putin has not steadily eroded press freedoms. There was no free press in the first place. Yeltsin-era laws made it virtually impossible for media companies to operate profitably within the law. That thrust them into the clutches of government officials, oligarchs, and others willing to make up for the media's financial shortfalls, in exchange for the opportunity to color the news. The media companies haven't served the media consumers, the citizens. Instead, they've been propaganda organs for their own sponsors. Russia's media have been part of a system of corrupt pluralism.

It's been popular to associate Putin with the purported curtailment of press freedom. Indeed, many current-day observers wax nostalgic about the days of press freedom under Yeltsin. Yet, it was back during the Yeltsin administration that Gusinsky first portrayed himself as a press freedom stalwart being oppressed by the Kremlin. That was when Russia's prosecutor general instituted criminal charges against the satirical "Kukly" puppet show that aired on Gusinsky's TV network. The show was charged with insulting high officials, including Yeltsin. Soon thereafter, a U.S. congressman introduced a saber-rattling "sense of the Congress" resolution. It claimed that Russian press freedom was being threatened by the government, and called upon the President of the United States to take action on the matter. That resolution was written by a lobbyist paid by Gusinsky! The next thing to happen was that the prosecutor general was fired, and the Kukly charges withdrawn. Isn't that some illustration of the long arm of the Russian oligarch!

The New York Times is not alone in disseminating the oligarchic slant on what's wrong with Russia's press freedom. Gusinsky and Berezovsky have expended great effort to frame the popular perspective that has become mainstream. Unless an observer had detailed knowledge of media economics, it would be hard to reality-test their self-serving claptrap. The Times is no novice when it comes to media business concepts. And their editorial writers certainly should have tapped into that expertise to develop a deeper understanding of the subject about which they wrote. Indeed, they had a responsibility to do so.

That said, their editorial was not all wrong. There's no doubt that the Russian media is "overly controlled and often intimidated." And, it was wise advice that President Bush should advocate to President Putin the necessity of a free press. Without it, as the Times editorial stated, "democracy cannot really survive."

Several organizations -- the International Center for Journalists in Washington, the Media Research Center Sreda in Moscow, and my consulting firm -- have backed a project called the Russian Media Fund (RMF) ( with an aim to remedy the long-standing press freedom problems. The project has requested and received an invitation from the Russian government to work out a remedial plan. Already, RMF has successfully advocated for the repeal of those draconian Yeltsin-era laws by the Putin administration.

But, the mere opportunity to operate profitably has not brought about a spontaneous change in the media's business culture. The entrenched corrupt system persists. Now, RMF is seeking to work with Russia's major advertisers and the Putin administration to dislodge the oppressive system of media sponsorship, and to allow press freedom to ring throughout all Russia, once and for all.

William Dunkerley (wd [at] publishinghelp [dot] com) is a media business analyst and consultant based in New Britain, Connecticut. He has worked extensively in Russia and other post communist countries.