Russia's Image in the World

(Russia Profile, Weekly Experts' Panel, December 16, 2005.)

Comments of William Dunkerley

Russia’s media sector has both an image problem and a presentation problem. Most Westerners I’ve spoken with who recall hearing anything about the Russian media milieu are likely to believe that “Russia’s free press has been oppressed by Putin.”

Consider the following charges:

1) Freedom of the press is being threatened by elements within the Russian government.

2) The administration has undermined and compromised the independence of privately owned television stations and other media enterprises.

3) The government used criminal investigations and presidential security forces against key media entrepreneurs.

4) Crimes against journalists suspiciously remain unsolved.

I’d wager there’s nary a critic of the Putin administration who would take issue with these statements. It is popularly believed that the media enjoyed freedom and independence under Yeltsin. However, the above charges were made in September 1995, when Boris Yeltsin was president in his first term.

These allegations were embodied in a Sense of Congress resolution introduced by U.S. Representative Thomas Lantos (D-California). Lantos acquired this information in the following way:

Vladimir Gusinsky, then owner of the television network NTV, was airing a satirical puppet show, “Kukli,” that took aim at President Yeltsin and Prime Minster Viktor Chernomyrdin. As a result, Yeltsin had the Procurator General bring charges against Gusinsky for insulting high government officials. In response, Gusinsky hired former Congressman Don Bonker (D-Washington), then a Washington lobbyist, to deal with the problem. Bonker wrote the resolution and convinced former colleague Lantos to introduce it in Congress, criticizing Yeltsin’s heavy-handedness with the press, and casting doubt upon continued U.S. support for Yeltsin’s reforms. The affair eventually ended with the Procurator General being fired; and the action against Gusinsky being dropped.

Compare 1995 with 2005. At both times, you have oligarch-inspired charges against the prevailing administration that press freedom is being decimated. The oligarchic perspective has become the mainstream understanding of the issue, never mind that these allegations represent a distortion of the truth. If this isn’t a problem of image, I don’t know what is.

In reality, though, it’s even worse. There never was any free press for either Yeltsin or Putin to threaten or undermine. Right from the start of the Russian Federation, there were laws that interfered with the ability of any news outlet to become a profitable business and, thus, free and independent. The media have survived only by serving as paid propagandists for politicians and oligarchs, among others.

Even though Putin’s handling of the media has been a major area of foreign criticism, the administration has not made an effective presentation to counter the oligarchs’ claptrap. It goes largely unobserved that Putin put an end to the restrictive laws that squelched media profitability and freedom. One reason is that although the laws have changed, not much else is different. The various financial overlords still have a choke hold on the press. What’s more, the administration has even joined that horde through its control of the Gazprom-Media properties.

For Putin to get out from under the anti-free-press image, it will take more than merely offering a “Russian perspective” to the world. After all, you can’t put a bikini on the barnyard pig and call it a beauty queen. The Russian Media Fund (, the private sector initiative that successfully advocated changing the laws that financially had hobbled the press, now is offering a plan to clean up the media business culture. That’s what’s needed to inspire trust in the media and in the president’s media agenda. Once that is accomplished, Russia Today (Russia’s official international TV network) surely will possess the needed ingredients for changing world perceptions about Putin and the media. Provided, of course, that Russia Today itself will have earned a reputation for integrity.

Willliam Dunkerley is a U.S.-based Russian media business analyst and consultant.