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Investors threaten freedom of Russian media

Russian newspapers August 11, 1997
Web posted at: 2:21 p.m. EDT (1821 GMT)

From Moscow Bureau Chief Jill Dougherty

MOSCOW (CNN) -- In the former Soviet Union, the media were under strict Communist censorship. But with the collapse of Communist one-party rule, the media have become a battlefield of often aggressively competing commercial interest groups.

During the Communist days, Izvestia (The News) was the official government newspaper, the censored voice of the Communist Party.

Since then, Izvestia has become one of Russia's most independent and democratic newspapers.


But last month, the Izvestia's editor in chief quit in disgust, saying the paper and the Russian media were now threatened with a new kind of censorship: financial empires with a political agenda.

"It won't be the Soviet-style total control. The system and the times have changed. But I'm afraid there will be no completely independent press left," said Igor Golembiovsky.

Last year, the paper was in trouble and was looking for investors as the former 10 million circulation figure had plummeted to 600,000.

Two Russian financial giants, Lukoil and Uneximbank, stepped in and bought most of the Izvestia stock.

Golembiovsky and his new owners soon clashed over editorial content. Izvestia claimed Lukoil was trying to censor the newspaper, but a company spokesman denied it.

"What's a free press? To be free to take bribes for getting a story published? To be free to publish unverified information? To make a boring newspaper? Be my guest. Let them find the money somewhere else," said Lukoil Vice President Leonid Fedun.

Throughout Russia, media outlets have become prime targets for investment. "It's no secret that the mass media are one of the most profitable markets, ranking third or fourth after arms sales, oil, gas and aluminum," said Vyacheslav Kostikov, vice president of Media Most.


Gasprom, which holds Russia's natural gas monopoly, has stakes in, or supports, more than two dozen newspapers and television stations.

Businessman Boris Berezovsky, a member of President Boris Yeltsin's security council, runs a mass media empire that includes television, a newspaper and a major magazine.

Media mogul Vladimir Gusinsky owns newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations.

Some of these holdings overlap in a complex web of financial power and politics.

In some cases, interests have clashed and ignited a media war. This was the case last month, when a battle erupted over the sale of the telecommunications giant Svyazinvest.

Most of the media barons are supporters of Yeltsin and provided crucial help during last year's presidential re-election campaign.

And observers say the current frenzy over buying up the media has one common denominator: the next presidential election three years from now.

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Related sites:

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  • Izvestia Online - the electronic information division of Izvestia
  • Lukoil - information about the company's activities in both Russian and English
  • Russian Stock Market Guide - site created to provide clear definitions of the organization of the Russian stock market and to explain the key features of equity trading in Russia
  • Russian Story - Russian Periodicals Online

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