by Ted Lipien
FreeMediaOnline.org Dublin, CA — During the Cold War, the Soviet media reported extensively on any real or imagined political scandal and natural disaster in the West, focusing especially on Moscow’s two biggest capitalist enemies: the United States and Great Britain. Six years into Vladimir Putin’s presidency, Voice of Russia, the state-run international broadcaster more commonly known during the Cold War as Radio Moscow, has returned to some of the old propaganda themes and habits after a period of practicing relatively objective journalism under President Yeltsin and in the early years under Putin.
This change, duplicated throughout the Kremlin controlled media, became especially apparent in the aftermath of the recent murder of prominent Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya. Four days after death, Voice of Russia’s English-language web site listed on its home page nine major stories. None of them dealt with the slaying of the Russian journalist who had angered the Kremlin with her investigative reporting of murders, torture and other human rights abuses in Chechnya and in other parts of the Russian Federation. The top story was President Putin’s decision to donate to the presidential library the gifts he had received while in office. Of the nine stories, six dealt in one way or another with scandals and political controversies in the United States and Great Britain, and one described America’s impending financial bankruptcy.
While they would see no reports about any problems or controversial issues in Russian politics, visitors to the Voice of Russia site were able to learn how Tony Blair finds it “hard to let go” of his current job and quarrels with his appointed successor. Another story described how “British spooks tried to cover-up a secret UFO investigation unit.” Site visitors could also read about mounting U.S. casualties in Iraq, Valentin Zorin’s analysis of a recent CBS poll with bad news for the Bush Administration, a story about British troops suspected of ‘guns-for-cocaine’ trade in Iraq, a report on a fresh scandal in the ranks of the U.S. Republican Party, and the final story titled “America Heading Toward Bankruptcy.”
Voice of Russia has not been unique in trying to ignore or downplay Politkovskaya’s murder. It took President Putin three days before he issued a public response, most likely only after the prompting from German Chancellor Angela Merkel who was his host during a visit to Germany. When he did react, his comments deeply offended friends and supporters of the murdered journalist. Although he called her death “a dreadful and unacceptable crime” that must be punished, at the same time he downplayed the importance of her work. Saying that “she had minimal influence on political life in Russia,” he also asserted that her murder caused “much more harm than her publications.”
President Putin’s remarks signaled that the murder victim’s value as a journalist and, by implication, the work of other Russian journalists should be measured not by how they inform the public but by how much damage their reporting might bring to Russia’s reputation. An independent international NGO, Reporters Without Borders, put Vladimir Putin on its 2006 list of “Predators of Press Freedom.” The list also includes such leaders as Cuba’s Castro, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, Uzbek President Islam Karimov, Turkmen President Separmurad Nyazov, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, North Korea’s Kim Jong-il, China’s Hu Jintao, and several other dictators, authoritarian rulers, as well as armed Islamist groups in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Iraq, and Pakistan.
Pro-democracy Russian journalists are appalled by Putin’s view of the role of journalism and his suggestion that Anna Politkovskaya’s reporting had been directed against Russia. Their concern has been heightened by the actions of ultra-nationalist groups in Russia whose web sites have been publishing names and addresses of journalists and pro-democracy activists, identifying them as Russia’s enemies and openly calling for their elimination. According to the international Committee to Protect Journalists, Russia is the third deadliest country in the world for journalists over the past 15 years, behind only the conflict-ridden countries of Iraq and Algeria. A new CPJ report found that 42 journalists had been killed in Russia since 1992. The Russian authorities have not solved the vast majority of these murders.
Despite Anna Politkovskaya’s execution-style murder, state-funded Voice of Russia did not consider the death threats and murders of journalists a story worthy of inclusion on its English-language web site. Like most of the Kremlin-controlled media these days, Voice of Russia avoids doing critical reporting that might be considered harmful to President Putin’s administration.
To their credit, Voice of Russia English web site editors did not engage in speculations implying that Anna Politkovskaya’s murder might have been arranged by Russia’s enemies. According to this theory, widely discussed in the pro-Kremlin media, unidentified enemies wanted to topple the Putin government by provoking protests similar to the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. In his public comments, President Putin himself suggested that enemies of Russia were behind the journalist’s murder and the pro-Kremlin media produced various far-fetched interpretations of these remarks.
The change in Voice of Russia’s reporting in recent years is not an isolated event on the Russian media scene. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Voice of Russia became a relatively objective news source but, like most major media outlets in Russia, its independence became severely restricted under President Putin. That may explain why many Russian reporters and commentators find it now safer to focus on other countries’ problems rather than to report on any serious issues in Russia.
Increasingly, Voice of Russia is also returning to the Cold War practice of repeating selective Western reports about scandals abroad, while avoiding coverage of controversial issues at home, especially if such coverage might include any kind of criticism of President Putin and his policies. Shortly after President Bush’s visit to St. Petersburg last July, Voice of Russia analyst Valentin Zorin questioned Bush’s intellect by quoting at length from Jonathan Chait’s column “Is Bush Still Too Dumb to Be President?.” The column, originally published by The Los Angeles Times, described President Bush’s presumed “narrow intellectual horizons” and “disastrous judgment.” Voice of Russia or any Kremlin-controlled media outlet would not have dared to offer a similar analysis of President Putin’s judgment on such issues as the Kursk submarine disaster, the war in Chechnya or his media policies.
During the Cold War, Radio Moscow frequently used articles from obscure pro-communist Western publications to bolster the credibility of its anti-American and anti-Western propaganda. Many of those reports had little basis in fact. Voice of Russia relies these days on generally accurate reports from the mainstream Western media. But the Russian state broadcaster has returned to the old Cold War habit of selectively presenting reports which reflect negatively on the United States, Great Britain and other Western nations. Voice of Russia editors make little attempt to balance these reports with opposing viewpoints or to offer news stories or analysis that might shed a negative light on the Putin administration. By contract, BBC and Voice of America, which are also taxpayer funded, report regularly on significant policy mistakes and criticism of Prime Minister Blair and President Bush.
While democracy is being diminished under President Putin, U.S. support for pro-democracy programs in Russia and the rest of Eurasia is rapidly declining. The focus of U.S. international broadcasting has shifted to the Middle East and the rest of the Muslim world. The Bush Administration’s FY2007 budget proposal calls for the elimination of all Voice of America (VOA) Russian-language radio broadcasts and for reductions in Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) broadcasts to Russia. VOA English broadcasts are also to be drastically reduced.
The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), a bipartisan body in charge of U.S. international broadcasting, has been reducing funding for broadcasts to Russia and even to Muslim Central Asia, where Russian-languge media is also under the control of authoritarian regimes. Critics of the BBG’s strategy for the Muslim world have charged that it focuses too heavily on propaganda through entertainment programming, which may be culturally offensive to the Muslims, and not enough on balanced analytical reporting.
The Board maintains that its strategy has resulted in increased audiences in the Middle East. But the critics argue that enhancing broadcasts to the Middle East should be done without cutting programs to Russia and the rest of Eurasia. They warn that such cuts would represent yet another serious blow to media freedom in the region and a gift to local dictators and authoritarian governments.
If these U.S. broadcasting cuts are implemented, Russian-speaking audiences will have to rely on Voice of Russia and other pro-Putin media outlets to do the work of Voice of America in explaining the workings of American democracy. This prospect has been strongly denounced in the U.S. Congress by both Democrats and Republicans.
Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty supporters hope that the Congress will intervene by passing legislation that would reverse the proposed programs cuts in U.S. broadcasts to Russia and other countries in Eurasia. A reversal of the cuts by the Bush Administration, the BBG, or the Congress would show that the United States is still committed to supporting independent media, not only in the Middle East but throughout the world.