[Boris Kagarlitsky]

"The Moscow Times", Friday, Feb. 16, 2001. Page 08

People Don't Care About This Conflict

By Boris Kagarlitsky After President Vladimir Putin's meeting with NTV journalists in the Kremlin on Jan. 29, ORT journalist Mikhail Leontiev declared on his show "However" that those NTV colleagues had been bought by Media-MOST owner Vladimir Gusinsky. He said that it wasn't necessary to lobby for them, but "to ransom" them. For their part, Gusinsky's media then began accusing Leontiev himself of being "bought." The spitting match of the next couple of weeks was enough to bring any normal human being to utter despair.

As far as Leontiev goes, I count him among the few journalists who actually have their own views. And what views! He is sincerely convinced that the mass execution of Chechens is a perfectly acceptable way of strengthening the state (he said so openly even before genocide became fashionable among Russian intellectuals). He has long called for banning opposition parties and for repression against the communists. He has never hidden his admiration for Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet who bathed his own country in blood. Leontiev has said with conviction that he opposes assistance to the needy.

However, these views are his own. And in two weeks of polemics, none of these views were ever touched upon by the Media-MOST crowd.

In truth, we are talking about something more than just a spat between two groups of journalists. And, at the same time, we are talking about something considerably less than the lofty concept of freedom of speech. The unpleasantness surrounding NTV certainly does not mean that freedom of speech — at least as the Russian authorities understand that term — is under threat. On the contrary, it means "business as usual," since the mass media have always been in tense relations with the authorities and, therefore, have always been under pressure.

On one hand, President Vladimir Putin has not shut down NTV or banned even a single newspaper. On the other, the Yeltsin period was also far from ideal for the mass media. Recall, for instance, how he closed down the opposition press and introduced prior censorship in 1993, to say nothing of his intolerance of contrary views on any television station, including NTV. The only difference is that then NTV was in the Kremlin's good graces and now it is seeing what it is like to lose the bosses' sympathy.

Of course, NTV also criticized the authorities under Yeltsin, sometimes quite harshly. But this criticism was never about the essence of Yeltsin's strategy or ideology or fundamental principles. It was always a sort of "self-criticism" from within the ruling camp, to which Media-MOST owner Vladimir Gusinsky and his journalists belonged. Of course, Leontiev also belonged to that same camp.

Our media elite was never interested in the real difficulties of independent journalism. They always strove to become part of the newly forming ruling class or even to lord it over the ruling class. The fathers of our free press emerged from the Soviet political incubator, after all, and never saw any real difference between information and propaganda. Basically, the Soviet propaganda apparatus was simply privatized. Basically, the Soviet propaganda apparatus was simply privatized, like our factories and our oil sector. Private propaganda suited the authorities fine as long as the interests of the media owners and the Kremlin coincided. The trouble started when they parted ways.

A truly free press depends, of course, not on how actively journalists participate in the dirty political games of the ruling elite, but on how willing the press is to stand aside from all that and to separate itself from the authorities altogether. Only then can it stop criticizing rival groups within the elite and see the entire corrupted political system as a whole. This is difficult and dangerous but only then will the press be protected by public opinion.

At present, the Russian press does not have such support. And rightly so.

Boris Kagarlitsky is a Moscow-based sociologist.

[Boris Kagarlitsky]
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