Vladimir Kara-Murza, 19 April 2012
As the Kremlin reluctantly implements reform measures promised in response to December’s pro-democracy protests, it tries its hardest to limit them with various conditions. The new law on political parties that gives legal status to opposition groups has been signed—but electoral coalitions are prohibited, so that the anti-Putin vote may be split between dozens of parties. Direct elections for regional governors will be reinstated—but candidates will have to secure the support of local legislators (which, outside of the big cities, almost invariably means Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party and its satellites) before they can face the voters.
On Tuesday, outgoing President Dmitri Medvedev signed a decree establishing the Public Television of Russia (OTR, by its Russian acronym)—another December promise. The idea, in theory, was to create a public broadcaster that would be independent of government control and would represent a wide spectrum of political views.
The reality turned out to be different. The director general of OTR (who will also serve as its editor in chief) will be appointed directly by the president of Russia. Members of the OTR council will also be named by the president on the advice of the Public Chamber, a rubber-stamp body loyal to the Kremlin. The founding shareholder of OTR will be a nonprofit company established by the Russian government (the same ownership scheme is used at Russia Today, Putin’s English-language broadcast mouthpiece). And while Medvedev declared that “government influence [on OTR] must not be overwhelming,” no mechanisms exist to ensure even the slightest degree of editorial independence. Mikhail Fedotov, who chairs the president’s human rights council, diplomatically suggested that this is “not the best option” for a public television channel. Prominent radio anchor Anna Kachkayeva put it more bluntly: Russia’s public television is being set up without the public’s participation.
There was, in fact, no reason to expect anything different. For Putin’s regime—with its lies, its crimes, and its corruption—media censorship is an existential necessity. It was not a coincidence that its first years were dedicated to the wholesale destruction of Russia’s independent television channels: NTV in April 2001, TV6 in January 2002, and TVS in June 2003. A decade later, the national airwaves are still under Kremlin control. But with each passing year, it matters less. With 49 percent of Russians now online—and with the Internet overtaking television as the principal media for Russians under the age of 34—the wall of censorship is no longer impermeable. The recent protests and a slate of opposition victories in local elections are testimony to that. When uncensored television returns to Russia, it will likely be not a result of the regime’s magnanimity, but of its downfall.
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