Putin's media blindness

Outside editorial

Posted: Wednesday, January 16, 2002

This editorial appeared in today's Los Angeles Times:

Like most leaders, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin knows what a thorn in the side a free press can be. What he apparently has yet to learn is that democracy cannot exist absent the pain of public scrutiny.

Last year, appearing on National Public Radio during his visit to the United States, Putin, a former colonel in the KGB spy agency, amazed some listeners by acknowledging the importance of a free press to his country's efforts to democratize. But last week's supposed bankruptcy and forced liquidation of TV6, the only Russian television network that consistently broadcasts criticism of Putin, demonstrate once again Moscow's fitful stumbling toward that goal, a decade after the Soviet Union's painful breakup.

Most observers shook their heads in disgust when a Russian court upheld a ruling that TV6 is out of money. TV6 is the one network that takes risks - such as a recent broadcast in which people complained that a three-day blackout had darkened every part of their mountain town except the resort where Vladimir Putin skis.

The Bush administration has joined proponents of democracy within Russia in protesting the campaign against TV6, whose finances appear to be far stronger than the court's action suggests and whose journalists are fighting to keep the network alive. Meanwhile, the two business tycoons who run the network - and are fierce critics of Putin - have gone into exile to escape what they call politically inspired criminal charges against them. They aren't the only media figures who feel persecuted. Last month a military court in Vladivostok sentenced a military journalist to four years in prison for espionage. The reporter's supporters say his real "crime" was disclosing environmental abuses by the navy, including its dumping of radioactive waste at sea.

On Tuesday Putin said he would consider pardoning the journalist. That's a good sign. So was Putin's visit to the United States last year. Given Moscow's history of repression, murder of Russians and control of all the levers of power, it was remarkable to hear him speaking openly on American radio, even taking unscripted questions from the audience.

Russia still has far to go in developing an independent judiciary and truly free elections. Its human rights record in Chechnya is appalling. Yet an impressive number of Russians continue to speak out and push their government in the right direction. Also encouraging is the people's optimism about the future. Until Putin embraces press freedom with some semblance of the openness he showed on American radio, however, his nation's steps toward democracy will lead nowhere.

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