BROOKE GLADSTONE: We're back with On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. Under new rules, Russian media are not allowed to provide any kind of "commentary" when covering a political campaign. The problem is that the official definition of "campaigning" is so broad, it leaves reporters with almost nothing to report.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:For example, here's some advice for journalists from an official at the Central Election Commission which issued the new laws. (Quote) "Suppose there is a candidate who promises free apartments to voters if he or she is elected. Journalists may report that fact but must refrain from any commentary about the candidate or his track record, even if he has pledged free apartments in a previous election but never delivered, because that is not information; it is your analysis, and is not appropriate as information." Two violations by a media organization in an election campaign, and it can be shut down for the duration of the campaign. Fred Weir writes for the Christian Science Monitor and is based in Moscow. Fred, welcome to the show.
FRED WEIR: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So this law was supposed to be aimed at curbing the, quote, "black PR" or bought and paid for coverage that marred previous Russian elections. Isn't that a good thing?
FRED WEIR: Well, sure, although it's kind of like attacking a fly with a sledgehammer.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You wrote in your article that these new regulations smack of Soviet times except that today's censors are not the Communist party hacks planted in editorial offices, but the managers of media outlets themselves. So are you saying that they're self-censoring in order to avoid being shut down?
FRED WEIR: Well, yeah. I think that's the big difference. In Soviet times, the Communist Party basically ran all the press and had their own people in every office sort of scrutinizing every word that went out to make sure that it conformed to the line. And of course in those days, everybody else conspired to get around it, to confound it in some way, and often in extremely inventive ways. [LAUGHTER] Now, there's considerable privatization of the media, although most of the main TV stations are still state-run. But the fear of being shut down, of losing your job, is what operates there in place of the party censor.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:You mentioned the creative ways that people were getting around the restrictions. I read that in a St. Petersburg paper they reported on a make-believe election in a make-believe land. Obviously it was a real election they were writing about, only they had changed all the names.
FRED WEIR: Yes. I, I think we'll see a great deal more of that, now as this election continues, because journalists are rediscovering those old skills, to somehow disguise their coverage so the readers will understand but the Central Election Commission, being mostly old-fashioned bureaucrats, maybe won't.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That's an old Soviet era tradition, right? Reading between the lines. What's it in Russian? [SPEAKS RUSSIAN PHRASE]
FRED WEIR: [SPEAKS RUSSIAN PHRASE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah. And so you're saying the Russians are primed to get their message, even if it comes in code.
FRED WEIR:Well, we'll see whether the public still has those old skills too. But I imagine people will revert pretty quickly, although that's an awfully sad commentary twelve years after the Soviet Union collapsed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:These laws stipulate that all of the 44 parties running for Parliament must be given equal space and treatment by the media. Some of these parties are pretty marginal.
FRED WEIR: It does come down to that absurd situation in which parties that have just appeared on the political horizon, you know, parties that have no chance whatsoever of making it into Parliament will have to be covered equally with the Yablica Party which is Russia's only liberal party and will almost certainly be back in Parliament, and of course the Communists who are the biggest opposition force regularly pull about 25 percent of the vote. And so I think in the application of the law there, it seems almost designed to drag down Yablica and the Communists.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:When Communism died, it seemed that free speech was one of the most prized benefits of the emerging democratic system. Are we seeing an incremental erosion of the free press under Putin?
FRED WEIR: Well I think it's definitely backwards movement, and it's not just in election coverage. The Kremlin itself uses the term "managed democracy" for what they're trying to bring about, which basically means the unruly elements, what Russians often think of as destructive and anarchistic elements of democracy will be pruned out, leaving only the smooth, stately process which doesn't contradict where the Kremlin wants to go. I think that's the idea, and it's now several years down the road, and there is very, very little, I think, actual independent media in Russia or outspoken dissent in the society. So in this respect the Kremlin has got what it has wanted.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay. Thanks very much, Fred.
FRED WEIR: You're welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Fred Weir writes for the Christian Science Monitor and is based in Moscow. [MUSIC]