Russia: Media Turmoil

During the past two weeks I have watched some of Russia's best journalists suddenly find themselves out on the street after losing a series of bruising corporate battles with allies of the Kremlin. It was an unsettling experience-and it reminded me of that old verity: you don't really know what something is worth until it gets taken away from you.

What happened? First, Russia's independent television channel NTV succumbed to a hostile takeover. As the new management moved in, dozens of rebellious journalists moved out, insisting that they wouldn't be able to work freely under their new bosses. Then came the news that the newspaper Sevodyna was facing closure. And finally, earlier this week, the editorial staff of the newsmagazine Itogi-the Russian-language weekly published in cooperation with NEWSWEEK-found itself locked out of its office. [NEWSWEEK announced Wednesday that it was terminating its relationship with the Russian magazine.]

All of these cases have a common context. The three companies involved are all part of the Media Most empire of tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky, one of the powerful businessmen, known as "oligarchs," who control most of Russia's economy. And the turmoil now surrounding Gusinsky's empire has everything to do with its shaky finances and its resulting dependence on a powerful patron, the state-controlled energy company Gazprom.

Gazprom management has been behind the upheaval at NTV and its sister firms, and that has led critics to accuse President Putin of using Gazprom as a corporate proxy to subdue journalists who have gone farther than most in criticizing his government.

"We consider this part of a wider attack on freedom of speech," says Sergey Mitrokhin, a representative of the liberal Yabloko party. "This is one form of nationalization-gaining political control over what was the independent media. We won't have the same reports on Chechnya that we had before. We'll have less criticism of the president."

In Russia, nothing is ever black-and-white, and this particular story has a lot of gray. Certainly Gusinsky has often used his media, and his TV station in particular, to promote his own partisan and commercial interests. One example: Gazprom guaranteed huge loans to NTV a few years ago, say many analysts, precisely because the station threw its biased weight behind President Boris Yeltsin's re-election bid in 1996. Gusinsky's fiercest critics accuse him, moreover, of using his media muscle to leverage favors and concessions from friends and enemies alike.

Some of Gusinsky's more thoughtful opponents also argue that journalistic independence can be hardly expected from media that can't maintain financial independence. Few media businesses in Russia have paid their own way over the past 10 years-a situation due, at least in part, to Russia's general economic woes. One offshoot of these financial problems is that they've given rise to a stunted advertising market that is hampered still further by absurd government regulations on advertising sales-which may or may not be a coincidence. In addition, most media owners often see their outlets as political weapons rather than as money-making businesses.

And yet it's extremely hard to see how the de facto nationalization that is happening now can provide any satisfactory answer to any of these problems. Russia's state-controlled media are blatantly partisan, notoriously ill-managed, and limitlessly subsidized.

"Anything can happen," says Yuri Badin, chief editor of Arkhangelsk Newspaper in the city of the same name. "The regional authorities see this happening and then get ideas about what they can do here. They'll see what has happened with Itogi in Moscow as an example of how to deal with the press in the regions."

If the government really wanted independent media, it would start by promoting the growth of a competitive advertising market. (Right now there are only two companies that mediate all TV ad sales in Russia, and both of them, unsurprisingly, have become obscure influence-peddling empires.) It would abolish the malevolent and unnecessary Press Ministry. It would remove the competitive advantages enjoyed by state-controlled media, and establish a framework for maintaining some measure of protection from political interference.

None of these things is happening, and President Vladimir Putin shows no sign of wanting them to happen.

Most of the press coverage in recent weeks rightly has focused on NTV, which is still one of only three national networks in a country where television probably is the most powerful political weapon. Newsmagazine Itogi has come in for much less attention. To some degree that may also be due to the medium itself. To an extent that few Westerners can appreciate, the newsmagazine format is deeply alien to Russia.

Soviet Russia had TV and newspapers, but no newsmagazines. That may have reflected the perception that there was something inherently middle-class about the implied readership: a harried, city-dwelling professional, too busy with job and kids and car to peruse a daily paper. For similar reasons, I have often heard Moscow intelligenty, with characteristic snobbery, pour scorn on the magazine for being too "accessible" or insufficiently literary. Still others describe it as forbiddingly "American" and "analytical." "Too many facts," someone told me once, as if he'd stepped on something unexpected in the yard.

The magazine is not dead. Under Gazprom tutelage, the dismissed journalists are being replaced by a new team that looks set to pursue a notably softer approach. But even if the spirit of the magazine is revived, under a different name, by the journalists who were evicted this week, the Itogi that they created has already left a lasting mark on Russia's media landscape. The old Itogi set standards in political analysis, cultural reporting, photography, and graphic design that many other Russian media have yet to achieve.

Itogi's arrival spawned a host of other newsmagazines, all with loyal followings. The magazine also managed to generate respectable profits in recent years, which may explain why Gazprom didn't shut it down altogether.

So perhaps it's fitting that one of Itogi's most memorable cover stories examined the state of Russia's nascent middle class. After I read it I wasn't entirely certain that I'd been convinced that middle class really existed. How ironic if Itogi, in its own modest way, ended up by helping to create one.