Russian media fear censorship’s return

From Anna Blundy in Moscow

RUSSIA’S press was up in arms yesterday after Yevgeni Primakov, the Prime
Minister, banned members of his Government from talking to the media. In a move
that smacks of Soviet-era censorship, the former spymaster has insisted that all
press inquiries be channelled through the information department headed by
Andrei Korotkov.

Russia’s heavyweight Kommersant Daily called Mr Primakov’s moratorium an
“iron curtain” and said it would be naive to believe the Government’s claim that
the move is a temporary one. The newspaper points out that this kind of
censorship is constitutionally illegal but that no legal action can be taken
against Mr Primakov because his decree was verbal rather than written.

The Duma’s acceptance of Mr Primakov as Prime Minister last Friday ended
Russia’s political stalemate, seeming to please both Communists and the Duma’s
various liberal factions. Since his appointment, however, Mr Primakov has
terrified reformers, who predict a return to the Communist past, by appointing
Gorbachev-era communists to key posts.

In a reference to the ban, Vladimir Kondratyev, a television commentator,
said on Wednesday night’s 7 o’clock news that “with or without permission, we
already have no footage of Primakov today”.

For now, any statement made by a member of the Government must first be
approved by Yuri Zubakov, a loyal member of Mr Primakov’s team. Mr Zubakov
refused to comment on the issue, but Mr Korotkov insisted that the ban should be
over by the weekend. He said: “We just need a few days to define our areas of
work”.

Mr Primakov rushed to quell the fears of his detractors, telling Interfax
new agency: “I plan to speak regularly on television and hold interviews with
the media.

Some remain unconvinced. Oleg Pamfilov, head of the Glasnost Foundation’s
monitoring service, said: “Primakov’s statement means he has cancelled the
constitution for a couple of days. This violates not only the law on mass media
but also the constitution of the Russian Federation.”