by Ted Lipien

FreeMediaOnline.org Dublin, CA – President Putin excused his clampdown on international media broadcasting in Russia using a false claim that Russian broadcasters suffer similar discrimination in the West. In an interview earlier this month with the German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Putin asserted that Russian media companies trying to enter the information markets of other countries, including Western Europe and North America, “are consistently prevented from doing so.” He went on to say that he has concrete examples of how Western countries use various bureaucratic pretexts that cause delays for Russian media companies which can last many years. He also claimed that the authorities in Russia treat foreign media better than government regulators in the West treat the Russian media companies. “They find thousands of reasons to prevent our media from working in your information markets. And many of yours work in Russia even without licenses,” President Putin told Sueddeutsche Zeitung editors.

President Putin did not invent these dubious claims. Kremlin bureaucrats charged by him with controlling the Russian media invented these false analogies several years ago. As a marketing representative of the Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), I heard them using this argument during negotiations in Moscow as an excuse for putting pressure on radio and televisions stations which wanted to cooperate with American broadcasters. In addition to VOA and RFE/RL, publicaly-funded Western international broadcasters active in the Russian media market also include BBC, Radio France Internationale, Deutsche Welle, and several others.

It is not clear whether President Putin truly believes his claims are accurate or whether he is simply repeating what the Kremlin officials in charge of public relations had told him. In fact, there is very little in common between the different situations described by President Putin. His assertion was inaccurate in commenting on regulatory practices with regard to media activities in the West and ignored the real reasons for his clampdown on international broadcasters and independent local media in Russia.

Since the end of the Cold War, VOA and other international broadcasters had been trying to offer programs to independent stations in Russia interested in outside news and information. They had not attempted to compete with local Russian stations for broadcast licenses or advertising revenue. Voice of America, Radio Liberty and their Russian partners would have been happy if President Putin’s media minders would allow individual networks and stations decide on their own whether they want to rebroadcast foreign programs. Most state-funded international radio broadcasters have not been seeking broadcasting licenses in Russia for their own exclusive use on a 24 hours a day seven days a week basis. They would have been satisfied with smaller blocks of programming being placed during good listening hours on existing Russian stations with their own local programming and local identity.

The argument advanced by the Kremlin officials in charge of the media, and repeated by President Putin, not only distorts the reality of what international broadcasters have been seeking to do in Russia, but it also makes a false analogy and false claims about Russian media ventures in the West. Russian television programs are being carried by individual stations and major cable systems in the West without any interference from government censors or regulators. DIRECTV, a big satellite television company in the United States, offers its American subscribers four Russian television channels of entertainment, news and information for an additional charge of $29.99 per month. While U.S. law prevents foreign companies from obtaining broadcast licenses in America, U.S. regulations do not forbid licensed American stations to use Russian programs as part of a larger program offer.

The ability of the Russian media to place programming in the West depends on the willingness of individual networks and stations to carry their broadcasts based on audience interest and commercial considerations. This would also apply to state-financed broadcasters such as Voice of Russia, formerly known as Radio Moscow. If Western stations want to carry Russian programs because their audiences find them interesting and unique, most governments would not and could not legally object. If audience interest is insufficient or geographically limited, Russian broadcasters are not prevented from buying blocks of airtime on Western media channels without having to obtain their own broadcast licenses or having to register with the authorities. This kind of limited cooperation or partnerships, based on free or paid placement of programming, is what most taxpayer-funded Western broadcasters have been trying to do in Russia.

It is true that in many Western countries, and for that matter in most countries in the world, it is difficult for foreign broadcasters to obtain 24-hour broadcast licenses for exclusive use by a foreign entity. Most countries do not allow foreigners or foreign companies to hold broadcast licenses. Obtaining broadcast licenses, however, has not been the aim of the Voice of America and most other government-financed Western broadcasters seeking audiences in Russia. In fact, it was the Russian government officials in charge of the local media who had been pushing international broadcasters to apply for special broadcast licenses in Russia for large blocks of programming. This was done so that the Kremlin could have control of the process rather than to allow individual Russian stations to choose how much of Western programs, if any, they wanted to carry. This approach also allowed Russian government officials to offer to Western broadcasters the least attractive broadcast channels, such as weak AM or outdated UKV transmitters, at exorbitant prices. What the Kremlin officials really objected to was a voluntary cooperation between Western broadcasters and independent stations in Russia.

Such cooperation flourished under President Yeltsin and continued, but with increasing interference form the Russian security services, during the first years of the Putin presidency. Eventually, the Kremlin forced most independent stations to end their voluntary cooperation with Western broadcasters. The Washington Post reported in July that due to the pressure from Russian government regulators, the number of stations rebroadcasting VOA material was reduced from 42 in 2005 to only five in 2006, while the number of RFE/RL affiliates declined from 30 to four. Since Vladimir Putin was elected president in 2000, all major national television channels in Russia have been brought under state control or shut down.

In forcing Russian stations to end their cooperation with Western radios, Russian regulators used the argument that the licenses under which local stations operated had not specifically authorized them to carry foreign broadcasts. That kind of restriction, however, amounted to a priori censorship of program content since most of these stations devoted only one or two hours a day to foreign newscasts, and in some cases only a few minutes. Stations in the West wanting to incorporate small program segments from Russian broadcasters into their own programming can proceed without any oversight from their governments with regard to their political content. Many do so already with or without financial compensation from their Russian partners.

After the end of the Cold War, it would be difficult to imagine an American President bothering to comment as to whether Voice of Russia programs are carried or not carried by an American station. If Voice of Russia and an American partner decided to cooperate and exchange programs, any attempts by the Administration to prevent such rebroadcasts would be highly embarrassing and would be denounced as an attempt to undermine media freedom. Managers of stations in Russia using Western programs, on the other hand, reported that in recent years they had been frequently visited by officials of Russia’s security service (FSB) telling them that if they did not stop their cooperation with international broadcasters they would lose their broadcast licenses. President Putin used to be an official in the KGB, the predecessor of the FSB.

President Putin’s claim that Russian broadcasters are not being treated fairly in the West was in response to a question as to why Russia is one of the worst countries for media freedom according to the list issued by the Committee to Protect Journalists, an international NGO. President Putin did not answer the question. Instead he seemed to suggest that there are no restrictions on the media in Russia, and if there are any, it is not his fault but the fault of the West for wanting to enter the Russian media market without permission. He further asserted that media freedom in the West is even more restricted because Russian broadcasters cannot easily enter the Western markets. None of these claims has any validity or is pertinent to the question asked by the Sueddeutsche Zeitung editors.

The Kremlin’s move against international broadcasters was only part of a much larger effort to establish central control over the major media outlets in Russia. President Putin’s policies have already destroyed the independence of domestic television broadcasters, most radio broadcasters and many newspapers. The Committee to Protect Journalists named President Putin as one of the ten worst “predators of media freedom” together with Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, and China’s President Hu Jintao.

Ironically, the Bush Administration and the bipartisan Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which is in charge of U.S. international broadcasting, may be unintentionally helping President Putin in his clampdown on independent media. Earlier this year, the Administration announced plans to terminate all VOA Russian radio programs and to reduce RFE/RL shortwave broadcasts to Russia. The plan’s objective was to divert more government resources to fund U.S. broadcasts to the Muslim world. But the BBG may have been influenced in its decisions by the assurances given by the Russian officials to one of its governors with business contacts in Russia that the Kremlin would not try to restrict the remaining VOA television and RFE/RL radio rebroadcasts on Russian stations. The Russian officials have also promised to tolerate program placement on expensive but marginal AM and UKV frequencies, which they ultimately control and can shut down at any time. Taking these assurances at face value, most BBG members, both Democrats and Republicans, voted to endorse the budget plan calling for broadcasting cuts in programs to Russia.

Since the time these promises had been made, Russian regulators have forced the majority of independent radio stations to suspend RFE/RL and VOA rebroadcasts. This action, which the BBG failed to anticipate despite obvious signs of President Putin’s continuing media crackdown, left the U.S. Administration with a plan to end all VOA Russian radio broadcasts and to reduce RFE/RL Russian programs. Theywere left with very few rebroadcasting options for the remaining VOA television and RFE/RL radio programs in Russia.

Should the BBG plans be implemented, the remaining few independent broadcasters and independent journalists in Russia and throughout Eurasia would have almost no access to news and information about the United States from the Voice of America. The BBG plans would negatively affect Russian-speaking audiences in a number of former Soviet republics, including Belarus and Uzbekistan. Some of these regimes are eagerly following President Putin’s example in clamping down on local independent media As in Russia, they are also forcing local stations to abandon their cooperation with Western broadcasters.

FreeMediaOnline.org, a California-based nonprofit organization which supports free media worldwide, called the BBG plans for Russian broadcasts “a blow to media freedom and a gift to dictators and authoritarian governments in Eurasia.” Some BBG members are now reconsidering their decision. There is also a move in the U.S. Congress to restore funding for VOA and RFE/RL radio broadcasts to Russia.

While Western governments, including the United States have muted their criticism of President Putin’s media policies, they are being increasingly questioned by many journalists and nongovernmental organizations. Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based international NGO, asked the French government to strip Vladimir Putin of the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor which President Chirac had awarded him in September 2006. The organization stated in a press release: “It beggars belief that Putin has been given one of the greatest honours France can bestow on a person. A total of 21 journalists have been murdered in Russia with almost total impunity since he became president. Chechnya is black hole for news coverage. Putin waited 48 hours before making any comment about the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, one of the few journalists to cover the Chechen conflict, and then he chose to say ‘her impact on Russian political life was minimal’.”

It is actually not surprising that President Putin used a false claim, most likely developed and presented to him by his own advisors. These are the same advisors who have been advocating a return to the Cold War propaganda policy of identifying the United States and the West as the enemy of Russia. Voice of Russia has almost completely stopped broadcasting reports even remotely critical of the Kremlin, but its web site is full of information on political scandals in the West based on reports already available in the Western media.

By restricting media freedom, President Putin’s political and media advisors have restricted exchange of information and free debate in Russia. In the long-run, the lack of such a debate can only harm Russia’s political and economic development and lead to serious and more difficult to resolve crises in the future, as it had during the Soviet times. In the short-run, it has already caused ill-advised decisions and international embarrassment for Russia and President Putin.

In a country, where free debate is restricted, leaders are much more likely to receive false information and bad advice. Relying on such advice, a leader of a powerful and proud nation stated with all seriousness that Russian broadcasters are being discriminated against in the West because they are Russian. He implied that this apparent Western conspiracy has forced Moscow to discriminate against Western broadcasters in Russia. These arguments are very similar to Soviet propaganda claims of the Cold War period.

Independent observes of the media scene in Russia, including many nonprofit international organizations not connected with governments, know that there is no truth to these claims. The Kremlin under President Putin has severely restricted media freedom in Russia for its own reasons having nothing to do with any activities of Russian broadcasters in the West. These Russian broadcasters are generally free to work with any Western partners willing to use their programs. Many Russian radio and television programs are in fact rebroadcast on stations and cable systems in the United States without any interest being shown by government regulators or other forms of political interference from Washington.

For President Putin to suggest that Russian broadcasters face similar political restrictions in the West as Western broadcasters do in Russia is disingenuous, damaging to his reputation, and harmful to Russia’s image as a major international power. A strong, democratically-elected leader should not engage in this kind of petty rhetoric. He should be confident enough to allow maximum freedom of the press in his own country without resorting to inaccurate assertions about media practices in other nations to justify his own clampdown on independent media.

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