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Putin crackdown media

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The Kremlin's media crackdown
Putin attempts to shut down oligarchs, end government criticism

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The "independent" media in Russia is becoming a casualty of President Vladimir Putin's crackdown on Russian oligarchs. Television networks are finding they must either tow the government line or come under state scrutiny. Putin's efforts to create a functional economy require taming the oligarchs, and those are the very people who run Russia's media.

The last so-called independent branch of Vladimir Gusinsky's media empire has fallen with the takeover of Echo Moscow radio by the state-run Russian gas giant, Gazprom, on July 11. But the final evisceration of Echo Moscow couldn't herald nightfall for the free press in Russia, for there never really was a dawn. The Russian press has never been truly free.

During the 1990s, oligarchs like Gusinsky acquired media outlets and used them as weapons to lash out at the government for policies they considered dangerous to their business and economic interests. In media coverage at that time, no topic was taboo, and politicians were regularly, and quite harshly, lampooned. In its recent moves, the government has been accused of attempting to silence its most influential and powerful critics.

While Putin does seem to be targeting outlets that are critical of the Kremlin, his moves are actually part of a wider conflict with Russia's economic elite. Whether it be government action like limiting investment in the media or closing a newspaper, these are smaller offensives in a bigger war.

The formerly independent NTV television station, taken over by Gazprom in April, was Gusinsky's favorite mouthpiece to criticize the government. TV6, currently in the Kremlin's sights, served the interests of Boris Berezovsky, another oligarch seen as aligned against Putin. Both oligarchs have fled abroad to evade charges of corruption and graft. Now that Gusinsky's power has been reduced and Berezovsky is on the run, Putin should have an easier time of managing the other oligarchs.

With Gusinsky and Berezovsky's media assets either on the block or locked up, the largest concentration of independent media outlets left belongs to Vladimir Potanin's Prof-Media, which includes the leading daily newspaper, Izvestia. But Potanin is an unlikely target: He's less a critical editorialist and more a high-rolling businessman. While Potanin may have drawn the Kremlin's attention for his insider work in rigging the privatization nearly 10 years ago of Norilsk Nickel, the world's largest nickel and palladium producer, Izvestia is not the lampooning medium TV6 once was. So long as Potanin pays his taxes on time, he'll stay in print.

The Kremlin's efforts are reaching beyond the oligarchs. Both Radio Free Europe, the U.S. government media grouping, and the BBC operate widely in Russia and have had minimal tangles with Russian authorities. But the Kremlin is throwing up barriers to possible overseas investments. This month it enacted a law that bars majority foreign ownership in Russian television. While the law was already in the works, CNN creator Ted Turner's attempt to buy into Russian media spurred legislative action.

Immediately after that law was created, the government went a step farther. It cut off negotiations with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the country's single biggest investor, for repairs to the Ostankino television tower. The bank made its loan contingent on charging all broadcasters the same rate to use the facility. But Moscow prefers to use its own pricing structure as another tool to lock out messages it finds distasteful. The government subsequently scuttled the loan, despite the negative signal it sent to the foreign investors whom Russia desperately needs.

Other techniques favored by the Kremlin include persecution for tax arrears, leaning on banks to call in overdue loans and demanding a carousel of operating permits. Oligarchs running Russian media outlets face a stark choice: stop pushing their own agendas or face shutdown. The remaining independent media lack the heft, circulation or notoriety to withstand any sort of government, or government-encouraged, assault.

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