BROOKE GLADSTONE: This year, Vladimir Putin won the Russian presidency in a landslide, with the help of a press bound by new rules barring commentary and restricting coverage of his challengers. But in his victory speech, Putin proclaimed that he would do everything, quote, "to ensure the freedom of the mass media." Well, not this week. The widely-admired TV anchorman Leonid Parfyonov was fired from the nominally-independent NTV network for two misdeeds -- first, he enraged the Kremlin by airing an interview with the widow of a Chechan leader who had been allegedly murdered by Russian security services -- it was broadcast in eastern Russia but was pulled before it could air in the west. Then, the newsman told the newspaper Izvestia all about the censorship. "I've worked as a journalist for 25 years," he said, "and for all those 25 years I've heard 'it's not the right time, yet, brother, it's not the right time.' It's about time to understand that information has an intrinsic value. It is neither harmful, nor useful, nor useless." Fred Wier covers Russia for the Christian Science Monitor, and he joins me on the line from his home near Moscow. Fred, welcome back.
FRED WEIR: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let's examine the role of the news anchor, Leonid Parfyonov. Now, three years ago, NTV, which had been one of Russia's most aggressively independent news outlets, was taken over by the state-owned gas company Gazprom, and two years ago, many of its leading journalists left because of a conflict with the Kremlin, but Parfyonov did stay. Why did he stay?
FRED WEIR: He stayed because, he said himself, he really doesn't like conflict like this, and because he believed the promises that NTV's independence would be preserved. He didn't show solidarity with the other journalists at that time, and all of them have had a bad fate, since. They've been run out of two more TV networks since that time, but Parfyonov, to a certain degree, he's been able to do what he does -- he clearly just ran up against the brick wall.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Would you say that this firing was inevitable?
FRED WEIR: I think so, and I think that the trend lines are absolutely clear. People who go beyond certain limits, and I think those limits are constantly being adjusted, will be punished. Already in the last four years, most of the Russian media has been poured into a straitjacket, and we have seen consistently the noose being tightened. This is not the first instance of this happening. And it more or less makes a mockery of everything that Putin said, both in his election acceptance speech, which you quoted, and in his State of the Nation address last week.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How's the firing playing there in Russia? Is there any reaction from the media or at least from the journalistic community?
FRED WEIR: Yes, yes, of course there, there is a union of journalists in Russia which is still independent and pretty combative, and it has taken a strong stand in favor of Parfyonov. Most of the people I talk to are really outraged, but you know in, in Russia today there, there aren't a lot of outlets for protest. You know, if you ask Russians on principle do you value democracy -- they'll think of the chaotic and dismal experience of the last ten years and say -- don't need it. But if you ask them something specific like are you sorry Parfyonov has been taken off the air, they will say yes, definitely.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The political analyst Lilia Shevtsova told the Financial Times that Parfyonov's work didn't fit into the Soviet brand of television. She said "It was an element of spring at a time when the rest of the country had entered autumn."
FRED WEIR: Yes, indeed. And, and there are a couple others like that, that you want to watch now. There's Savik Shuster, who also works for NTV. There's Vladimir Posner, who a lot of Americans may know because he speaks perfect English, who has his Bremina program on the state-owned ORT program. Those people are also pushing the limits and could very well be next in line to be fired.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think Russia, then, despite all of Putin's promises, inexorably is entering autumn?
FRED WEIR: That, that's too hard a question. I don't believe the sort of high-sounding promises that Putin is making. I think there's a, a vast bureaucratic momentum behind his re-establishment of state power. He's doing it for economic reasons. He wants to modernize the country. But he believes very strongly that dissent must be crushed in order for economic efficiency to triumph.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why does he keep making these promises about freedom of expression all the time, then? Is it for the domestic audience or for the foreign one?
FRED WEIR: I think he may sort of believe it. You have to remember, I mean I'm old enough to have listened to lots of speeches by Soviet leaders, and they all talked a good show about freedom and progress and all of that too.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But you wouldn't say Stalin believed his own promises. Do you think that Putin does? [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
FRED WEIR: No. Maybe. And I'm even willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. But the reality here, when it comes to setting priorities, is that freedom of expression is definitely not a priority in Putin's Russia.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, Fred, thank you very much.
FRED WEIR: Okay, my pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Fred Wier is a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor. He spoke to us from his home just outside Moscow.