Sticking To The Party Line

If press freedom in Russia is under fire, Mikhail Leontiev is proud to be a member of the firing squad. He's made a habit of trashing journalist colleagues. He has defended military officers sentenced for murdering a reporter who had implicated them in corruption scandals. He has savaged critics of the war in Chechnya. And lately the 42-year-old TV journalist has been hard at work demolishing the reputation of NTV, the independent TV station now under threat of a hostile takeover by the state-controlled corporation Gazprom. Leontiev finds nothing strange about his attitude. "I've never been a democrat," he declares happily.

Nor is Leontiev a member of Russia's lunatic fringe. In fact, he represents a growing cohort of Russian journalists who interpret freedom of speech as their president seems to--as the freedom to agree, completely and enthusiastically, with whatever the government thinks is good. "The idea of a strong government is very popular now," says radio journalist Andrei Babitsky, a Leontiev opponent who infuriated the Kremlin with his confrontational reporting on Chechnya. "And the journalists who support this idea are also very popular."

Even most ordinary Russians now seem to regard press freedom as something they can do without. In a recent poll conducted by the Public Opinion Fund, 57 percent approved of censorship of the media--up by 8 percent since last November. No one other than independent media watchdogs has protested the violence directed at Russian journalists in recent years. (By one estimate, 64 Russian journalists were attacked last year in connection with their professional duties, four of them killed.) When Babitsky was subjected to a campaign of harassment by the Kremlin's security forces in Chechnya last year, a rally in his favor attracted 150 people in Moscow--while 4,500 sympathizers showed up in Paris.

That apathy owes much to the disillusionment with democracy that underlies President Vladimir Putin's popularity. Among ordinary Russians, the economic chaos of the 1990s, compounded by foreign-policy humiliations such as NATO's enlargement and the bombing campaign against Yugoslavia, has fueled intense anti-Western sentiment. Readers and viewers encourage those journalists who are prepared to bash the United States and trumpet a nationalist line.

Many of those progovernment reporters originally benefited from the freedoms of the glasnost era. Leontiev formerly worked on an independent newspaper owned by Vladimir Gusinsky, the tycoon who founded NTV (and also Itogi, a NEWSWEEKly published in cooperation with NEWSWEEK); today Leontiev pours scorn on Gusinsky and his media outlets. Maksim Sokolov, whose slickly written columns in the newspaper Izvestiya have made him the darling of nationalist intellectuals, put in a stint at the U.S.- financed Radio Liberty in the early '90s. Vitaly Tretyakov's daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta has been transformed from a flagship of press freedom to a megaphone for Putin loyalists.

Even defenders of the independent press acknowledge that most progovernment journalists have chosen their course freely. "No one is forcing them to do it," says Sergei Parkhomenko, Itogi's editor. "It's not like the communist press. It's their deep conviction, it's sincere. Public opinion is more on their side than ours." That may not be entirely true, at least not in urbane Moscow, where protesters gathered to support NTV's independence. But clearly sentiment has shifted against would-be muckrakers.

Apologists for the progovernment media argue that in the 1990s, journalists weren't all that free either. Thanks to Russia's weak economy and journalists' poor management skills, most of the country's media have never earned profits; most remain dependent either on the government or private entrepreneurs who bankroll their operations in return for influence over coverage. "We understood too late that journalism is an economic category," says TV journalist Oleg Dobrodeyev. "We have to earn enough money if we want to be free." Leontiev, a former independent newsman now in the government camp, repeats an argument also voiced by Putin. The official line is that tycoons like Gusinsky simply used their media holdings to "blackmail" opponents--and the official line is fast becoming almost the only line.