The following editorial appeared in today's Washington Post:
When the management and highly regarded journalistic team of Russia's NTV television network was forced out earlier this year, spokesmen for Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed he had nothing to do with it; the takeover of the only television network to report critically on his government, they said, was the result of a common "business dispute." Since then, the following things have happened: NTV, which promised to preserve independent news coverage, has instead toed the government line, causing its ratings to plummet; most of the journalists who worked at NTV have moved to an obscure cable network, TV-6, which has promptly emerged from obscurity to produce Moscow's most-watched newscasts; and, once again, a "business dispute" has popped up. This week a Moscow court, responding to a petition from the Kremlin's favorite oil company, ordered TV-6 liquidated, a step that likely would eliminate independent news reporting from Russian television once and for all.
Even as the Bush administration and European governments continue to celebrate Mr. Putin's supposed decision to embrace the West, the Russian president goes right on violating the democratic norms and human rights that ought to be fundamental to any such choice. Despite a gesture toward peace talks, the war in Chechnya grinds on, with more brutal "cleansing" operations by Russian troops. Academics with friends or contacts in the West continue to be arrested on transparently spurious espionage charges. And now Mr. Putin is again insisting on the elimination of any television news broadcast that might report independently on Chechnya, the spy trials or other sensitive subjects. Even the Russian Communist Party has been taken aback by his raw power play: "The authorities are trying more and more to concentrate the information resources in the hands of a single (presidential) group," said leader Gennady Zyuganov.
Bush administration officials have frequently pledged that the president's headlong and emotional embrace of Mr. Putin, and the desire for Moscow's help in fighting terrorism, will not cause the administration to drop democracy and human rights from the U.S.-Russian agenda. At their meeting this month Mr. Bush declared as he stood alongside Mr. Putin that "a strong, independent media is a vital part of the new Russia," and said the two governments had agreed to "launch a dialogue on media entrepreneurship, so that American and Russian media representatives can meet and make practical recommendations to both our governments."
Well, here is a practical recommendation Mr. Bush can make to Mr. Putin: Stop suppressing independent television news. A Kremlin leader who goes to such lengths to silence his country's best journalists may not turn out to be the great Russian modernizer the West so eagerly anticipates.
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