The Bankrupt Russian Press

(The Washington Post, June 13, 2001)

By William Dunkerley

Three recent items in The Post have contentiously discussed aspects of Russia’s press freedom quagmire [“Russia’s Un-Free Press,” op-ed, June 1; “Exaggerating Russia’s Media Mess,” op-ed, June 2; “Key to Free Speech in Russia,” letters, June 6].

But none has revealed a fundamental impediment to Russian press freedom: Advertising expenditures are not fully tax deductible for companies in Russia. Newspapers are allowed no more than 40 percent advertising content. (By comparison, American newspapers average almost 60 percent.)

As a result, most newspapers can’t get the legitimate support they need to operate. Many are in a practical state of bankruptcy and have fallen prey to such financial overlords as Boris Berezovsky, and regional governors and mayors — all of whom seek to use their media holdings to present distorted news advancing their private business or political interests. It isn’t, as Mr. Berezovsky contends, that commercial advertising is simply too weak. Laws stand in the way of true press freedom. Without the legal ability to gain wide-based advertising support, there’s no way out for the newspapers.

Recently, several organizations — the International Center for Journalists in Washington, and the Media Research Center Sreda in Moscow, among them — have backed a project called the Russian Media Fund with an aim to remedy this problem. The project has requested and received an invitation from the Russian government to work out a remedial plan, and is expecting financial backing from about a dozen Russian and Western multinational companies that account for the bulk of advertising expenditures in Russia.

This approach will cost far less than Mr. Berezovsky’s estimate of $30 million per year, it won’t create the relationship of dependency that he advocates and it will cut to the heart of the matter: the needed legal environment to let freedom ring throughout all Russia.