BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. From the very beginning of Vladimir Putin's presidency, press freedom in Russia has been hanging by a thread. Despite Putin's stated commitment to a democratic media, his Kremlin has imposed censorship in Chechnya, orchestrated legal cases against powerful media barons and granted sweeping powers of surveillance to the security services. Recently Russia's last politically independent TV station, TV-6, was pushed to the brink of bankruptcy due to a rarely invoked law that many see as an effort to silence the station. Also recently Journalist Grigory Pasko was sentenced to 4 years in prison for reporting that Russia had dumped nuclear waste in the Japan Sea. And these are just the latest episodes in Putin's continuing campaign to control his nation's press. Mike McFaul is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and an senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He says that the climate for press freedom was chilly under Putin's predecessor Boris Yeltsin, but now it's headed into the deep freeze.
MIKE McFAUL: Under the Yeltsin era there was some harassment and Mr. Pasko was arrested, after all, in the Yeltsin era. But there was a sense that the media was important. Boris Yeltsin defended the media as a principle --that it should be free and independent. Under Putin though it -- the rules have kind of changed. He speaks formally about: we need a free press, but his actions, particularly against Mr. Pasko, against NTV, the national television station that was shut down earlier last year, he's demonstrated that he just doesn't get it, in my opinion, what a real free and independent press is. And people are nervous now! People are scared. You have self-censorship for the first time in a long time in Russia.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:You mentioned NTV. Russia's two former oligarchs, media oligarchs as they're called, Vladimir Guzinsky [sp?] and Boris Barezofsky [sp?] are now both living in exile after economic and political pressure forced them out of their empires and out of the country. They were dissenting voices in the media landscape in Russia. Now there's only one politically independent TV station left -- TV-6, and it's facing closure. What's the latest in that case?
MIKE McFAUL: TV-6 is owned -- 75 percent of that company is owned by Boris Barezofsky, the man you just mentioned who's in exile. 25 percent is owned by the pension fund of the largest oil company in Russia -- Luk [sp?] Oil, and under a very obscure law that finally is no longer valid as of January 1st of this year, Luk Oil went to the courts to shut down TV-6 because it hadn't turned a profit in two years. One court upheld that decision. Another one overruled it, and a third just recently overruled that one. This has nothing to do with the rule of law. It has to do with arbitrary use of the rule of law against Putin's enemies.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Well one of the most devastating effects of the crackdown on the press is the lack of coverage of the War in Chechnya. Has Putin been effective in muzzling that coverage?
MIKE McFAUL: Well he did it [LAUGHS] most effectively by putting NTV out of business because NTV in the last war was the television network that devoted the most critical coverage to the first war. By pushing them to the sidelines he's managed to really control the media. Having said that, it's curious to look at opinion polls from Russia. Despite that people are learning about the war first and foremost through their loved ones who go to serve there, and his popularity in terms of that policy in Chechnya has been declining. People don't like wars that they don't understand.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Since we need Russia politically right now, do you think the government and even the media watchdogs are cutting Putin more slack than he deserves? Do you think the West is watching Russia's handling of the press closely enough.
MIKE McFAUL: Well I know that the Bush administration is watching it closely. I know the people who are doing it. They're watching it closely. What they're not doing is making it a major issue in U.S./Russia relations, precisely because we want them on our side for the war on terrorism. We don't want to get into spitting matches about TV-6 and the Pasko's and Moysayevs [sp?] and Sutiagins [sp?] of the world. I think that's regrettable, because I think at a time when Putin also wants to reach out to the West he very much values the relationship he's established with Bush. That therefore gives President Bush leverage to help his friend along, if you will, to help him understand the importance of these things. Now I'm told that when they met in Crawford it did come up; it was put on the agenda. But I think without publicly speaking about these things you undermine those very brave souls in Russia that are still trying to keep independent journalism alive.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, Mike, thank you very much.
MIKE McFAUL: Thanks for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Mike McFaul is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and an assistant professor of political science at Stanford University, and he's also senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. [MUSIC]