Russia2 December 2008
Government puts combating press before combating economic crisis, ordering prosecutors to monitor media coverage
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is to take questions from members of the public in a live programme at midday on 4 December, resuming a practice he began while president. Called “A conversation with Vladimir Putin,” the show will be carried by two TV stations, Rossia and Vesti-24, and two radio stations, Mayak and Radio Rossii, and questions are expected to focus on the economic crisis, fuel prices and mortgages.
Russians clearly want to know what the government plans to do to combat the effects of the crisis and, according to a poll published by the Interfax news agency, they are not satisfied with what the media are telling them. Only 3 per cent of those polled said they thought the information about the domestic economic situation provided by the print and broadcast media accurately reflected reality.
The authorities have nonetheless chosen to brandish the threat of prosecutions against news media that try to cover the economic situation. As a result, the department of public prosecutions is playing a most unexpected role in the measures adopted by the government to combat the crisis.
“Monitoring the content of articles about the Russian economic situation is a disturbing and surreal political choice,” Reporters Without Borders said. “It is disturbing because it shows how deeply the censorship reflex is rooted in Russian officials and it is surreal because they are mistaken if they believe that censorship can be effective.”
The press freedom organisation added : “They can try to deprive the public of information but they will not prevent the effects of the crisis from spreading and they will just discredit themselves and the judicial system.”
The Russian prosecutor-general’s office formally instructed prosecutors on 18 November to verify reports in the media and to oppose “the use of news reports to attack banks.” To this end, prosecutors are to be guided by a directive on “the organisation of surveillance in connection with government measures to address the situation in finance and other sectors of the economy.” The surveillance is under prosecutor-general Yuri Chaika’s direct control.
The first victim of this policy was the business daily Vedomosti, which received a warning for publishing a sociologist’s comments about the possible consequences of the crisis on 6 November. The newspaper was advised to comply with the law on “extremism” adopted in mid-2007, which has already given rise to many media prosecutions.
Thereafter, the judicial authorities extended their media monitoring to the provinces. Aksana Panova, the editor of Ura.ru, a news agency based in Yekaterinburg, the capital of the Sverdlovsk region (in the Urals), was summoned by prosecutors on 18 November for a “conversation” about its coverage of the regional banking sector. “I was asked how we got our information,” she told the daily Kommersant. “In the end I spent nearly an hour detailing the financial situation of businesses in the region.”
The Sverdlovsk prosecutor’s office announced at a news conference on 27 November that surveillance would be carried out with help from the regional sections of the Federal Security Service (FSB), interior ministry and the Federal Service for Communication and Information Organs (Rossviazkomnadzor), and would apply to not only to articles and advertising but also to attacks on credit institutions via other means of communication.
The head of a Yekaterinburg bank had, for example, complained directly to the prosecutor’s office, accusing the employees of rival banks of circulating telephone text messages suggesting that his bank would not be able to honour its commitments to its clients.
TV stations, in particular, are being pressured. When the parliament in the southern Saratov region adopted its 2009 budget, local TV station Vesti-Saratov failed to mention that it was that was 9 billion roubles smaller than the 2008 budget, instead stressing claims by ruling United Russia legislators that most social programmes would be maintained.
At the same time, the print media has above all been experiencing problems in getting access to information, which is becoming scarcer, according to local daily Saratovskii Vzgliad, which said it was trying to keep readers informed about the repercussions of the financial crisis on the “real economy.”
The authorities regard this as “preventing violations,” not censorship, said Rossviazkomnadzor spokesman Yevgeni Strelchik. But news media representatives disagree. Mikhail Fedotov of the Russian Union of Journalists (RUJ) said that, for a journalist, the most serious violation of the media law is to conceal information on such a critical subject. It would also violate the public’s constitutional right to information, he added.
Pavel Gutiontov, another RUJ member, asked : “Who will decide what constitutes an attack by a news media and what constitutes informing the public on the poor situation of credit institutions.”