Sat, 16 Sep 2000

Russia media doctrine stirs freedom fears

By Gareth Jones

MOSCOW (Reuters): Russia's new information security doctrine is vaguely worded and open to diverse interpretation, but commentators say its message is clear enough -- the Kremlin is tightening the screws on the mass media.

The doctrine, drawn up by Russia's increasingly influential Security Council and signed last weekend by President Vladimir Putin, does not have legal force, but it lays out guidelines for relations between the Russian state and its mass media.

One of the authors of the doctrine, Anatoly Streltsov, has said it might require changes to a liberal media law dating back to the heyday of glasnost under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Political analyst Yevgeny Volk of the Heritage Foundation said the new document underscored a move towards more authoritarian rule under Putin, adding that it could never have seen the light of day under his liberal predecessor Boris Yeltsin.

"The general intent is quite clear -- the authorities are trying to increase their control over all aspects of the mass media, including the Internet," he told Reuters.

He said the doctrine's stress on building up state media and countering perceived threats to "national interests" from foreign news organizations highlighted the growing role of the security services under Putin, a former KGB agent.

"The special security forces have never liked the media or the policy of openness...It is quite a change after Yeltsin who for all his faults was a politician, not a bureaucrat, and who understood the value of the press," said Volk.

The Russian Union of Journalists' general secretary, Igor Yakovenko, sounded an equally pessimistic note.

"This document is itself a real danger to the country's information security in that it is written in a spirit at odds with the principles of freedom of expression...enshrined in Russian law," Interfax news agency quoted him as saying.

He attacked the call for expanding state-owned mass media. "Only Russia, Cuba and a few formerly socialist countries have state-owned newspapers," he said.

Putin himself, who has been in the public arena for barely a year, has repeatedly pledged to uphold democratic freedoms but has also declared war on powerful media barons who he accuses of manipulating news for their own commercial ends.

More recently, he has been stung by media coverage of the Kursk disaster, when he was widely criticized for reacting slowly and inadequately to the sinking of the submarine with the loss of all 118 men on board.

In an emotional outburst during a meeting with relatives of the dead men, Putin even blamed television for the parlous state of Russia's cash-starved armed forces.

However the 46-page information security doctrine contains frequent references to the importance of media freedom and of public access to information.

It also talks vaguely of supporting Russia's "spiritual renewal...and traditions of patriotism and humanism".

More controversially, it calls for a "clearer definition of the status of foreign information agencies, mass media and journalists", sparking fears in some quarters that the state might try to curb the activities of international media.

"It is just too early to say what this doctrine will mean," said Alexander Pikayev of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think-tank.

"To a large extent, it reflects the wider political struggle between those pushing for more state control of the media and those opposed to such an idea."

Sergei Markov of the Institute for Political Studies played down any direct link between the doctrine and feuds between the Kremlin and media magnates like Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky.

"This doctrine has been three years in the making...though we cannot ignore the timing of its publication," he said.

Gusinsky, owner of the Media-Most holding which includes Russia's only independent television network NTV, was briefly jailed this summer on embezzlement charges in what he described as an attempt by the Kremlin to intimidate his media outlets. After his release, Gusinsky left Russia and has yet to return home, where he fears for his safety.

Berezovsky, a one time Kremlin insider turned fierce critic of Putin, says the authorities are forcing him to give up his 49 percent stake in ORT public television. He has proposed turning over his stake to a group of journalists and entertainers.

Television is by far the most crucial source of information in Russia, a vast country straddling 11 time zones in which no newspapers enjoy nationwide circulation. Yeltsin owed his election victory in 1996 over the Communists to strong support from Berezovsky's ORT and Gusinsky's NTV.