- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 10, 2002

The Kremlin's media watchdog said yesterday that his ministry is preparing new laws to define the "rights and responsibilities" of Russian journalists and media owners as it considers a sale of state-owned media properties.
Information and Press Minister Mikhail Lesin, meeting with reporters during a Washington visit, rejected what he called "stereotyped reporting" in the West about the state of press freedoms in Russia, saying that "growing pains" were inevitable as Russia attempted to develop a mass media market after decades of state control under the Soviet Union.
"It was unrealistic ever to expect the media market to develop ideally to international standards," Mr. Lesin said, speaking through an interpreter. "The last 10 years have been a hard road of trial and error."
Russian President Vladimir Putin has been the target of intense domestic and international attacks following high-profile clashes with critical media outlets, notably the ouster of the owners and editorial staff of the NTV and TV-6 television networks.
Mr. Lesin, a successful ad executive who helped mastermind former President Boris Yeltsin's 1996 re-election campaign, topped the list of "Enemies of the Russian Press" released last year by the Union of Russian Journalists.
The Russian official said yesterday the government had no intention of restricting private media but made clear he thought it was the government's responsibility to prevent the dominance of major media outlets by political parties or super-rich businessmen pushing their own interests.
Corrupt owners had a "degrading influence on election processes," said Mr. Lesin, who accused one unnamed media company owner of blackmailing the government in the wake of the 1998 ruble crisis, threatening to air highly negative coverage unless he received a payoff.
New media laws are needed, Mr. Lesin said, because current legislation does not distinguish between reporters, editors, publishers and owners of mass media outlets.
"This is not normal," he said. "We have to have clear rules of the games so that all understand their rights, responsibilities and obligations."
The government and state-linked enterprises such as energy giants Gazprom and Lukoil control significant chunks of the Russian media, including the vast bulk of national television networks.
Mr. Lesin said no formal decision had been made to privatize government media properties, but he added the idea is under consideration.
"The government should probably leave the media market and cease to be a competitor to private media companies," he said. "But it must be a transparent, predictable process," with an "open list of state media properties to be sold."
The information minister said he hoped to announce by this fall whether a sale of state media properties would be held.
Mr. Lesin conceded that the NTV and TV-6 fights, pitting Mr. Putin against leading "oligarchs" Vladimir Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky, "were of course politicized. It is useless to argue against it."
But he said the clashes had also "opened up new ideas on media management in Russia."
He cited a 90 percent drop in political-party funding for newspapers and the fact that many of Russia's regional newspapers and broadcasting outlets are now "playing economic tunes instead of political tunes."

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