Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Window on Eurasia: What Lies Behind Some Unexpected Cases of Openness on Moscow TV?

Paul Goble

Vienna, December 22 – Several programs this past week on government-controlled Russian television challenged the official line, prompting analysts to ask “what this could mean” and whether it was the result of “an order received from above” or “the first signs of the return of the principles of freedom of speech in the electronic mass media.”
None of the information in these programs was new to those who rely on the Internet, Kasparov.ru commentator Yury Gladysh points out, but its appearance on the medium that most Russians rely on for information and that, as a result, the government has imposed more control than elsewhere, is striking (www.kasparov.ru/material.php?id=4B2FA4093ED74).
During the last week, Gladysh notes in an analysis posted online yesterday, “Russian television unexpectedly gladdened its followers” because “the writers of several programs tried in their works to raise serious questions and, what is not less important, tried to provide answers to them.”
“It is not excluded,” the commentator notes, that these actions represent simply a sign that television programmers are fed up with being criticized for their slavish obedience to the powers that be and decided to show their independence. But, he notes, “the subjects raised in these programs are not what you would call typical holiday fare.”
The first example of this independent line, Gladysh suggests, was the story shown on TV Tsentr about the death of lawyer Sergey Magnitsky while he was under arrest. The journalists on that program did not beat around the bush but “directly said” that “a criminal vertical” dominates the country, “at the top of which are ‘senior bureaucrats from the law enforcement organs.’”
And the journalists added, Gladysh says, that this is hardly surprising, given the precedents of the last two decades, because once again in Russia “a re-division of enormous capital” is taking place.” But that judgment, familiar to many visitors of the Runet, pales in comparison with other comments on the program.
Andrey Babushkin, the head of the Human Rights Committee, said on the air that “the doctors, investigators and judges, as a result of whom illegality and arbitrariness rule in the law enforcement system ought to be brought up on charges,” and another activist, Valery Borshov, added that the investigation in Magnitsky’s case was intended to destroy him.
Such comments, as Gladysh notes, have been made regularly in “opposition meetings,” but as far as a federal television channel is concerned, “they are being sounded almost for the first time,” and not on “’a suspicious’” outlet like REN TV or TTVi but “on the completely respectable TV Tsenter which is controlled as is well known by the Moscow government.”
Some Russian analysts, he continues, believe that the powers that be have given orders for such openness, but “incurable optimists prefer to believe” that these are “the first signs of a return to the principles of freedom of speech on the airwaves,” something that could help transform the entire Russian political system.
The question is made more urgent, Gladysh suggests, because the coverage of the Magnitsky case was not the only occasion where government television showed greater openness last week. That was also the case, he says, with programming on global warming and on the state of military reform.
In both cases, the Kasparov.ru observer continues, critics of the Russian government’s position were given significant if not equal time, allowing viewers to draw their own conclusions or at least become familiar with questions about the reassurances they have been receiving from the powers that be.
Even an NTV program on Stalin conveyed the message that “the Soviet period of the history of the state in reality did not have anything in common with those myths which are forcibly being insisted upon today by ‘patriotic’ propaganda,” including that offered by the government.
On that broadcast, Gladysh notes, Gennady Zyuganov, the leader of the Russian Communist Party “was forced to agree that the CPSU was an administrative structure and not a party in the usual sense of the word.” And other “Stalinists” made comments that in the Kasparov.ru commentator’s view had the effect of undermining what they said.
Whether these programs represent a change in the direction of Russian media and hence government policy or whether they are simply a chance combination of efforts by some journalists to live up to their professional responsibilities remains to be seen, but the answer to that question almost certainly will entail profound consequences for the future of Russia.

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