Premier Clamps Down on Idle Chat

By Valeria Korchagina

One of Yevgeny Primakov’s first orders of business as prime minister has been
issuing new marching orders throughout the government: No one is to speak with
journalists. Andrei Korotkov, the head of the government’s information
department, confirmed the limit on media access to officials, which he
characterized as a temporary measure to give the bureaucracy breathing space to
adapt to new leaders and new responsibilities. Officials of the new
Cabinet-in-making are “too busy dealing with other things” to justify finding
time for journalists, he said.

“This is a purely technical moment. We need a few days to define our areas
of work,” Korotkov said. He said the ban should be over by the weekend.

In the meantime, Korotkov said, his office will be the only one authorized
to deal with the press.

Already by the evening news cycle Wednesday, television programs seemed to
be struggling to put together their reports on the government.

“Whether with or without (official) sanction, we already do not have footage
of Primakov today,” said NTV observer Vladimir Kondratyev on the station’s 7
p.m. news broadcast.

To cover Primakov’s day, NTV was reduced to parroting information from
scarce official government news agency reports, and to asking other officials
who had met with Primakov where the prime minister had been and what he was
doing.

Russian media greeted Primakov’s innovation on Wednesday with caution.
“We’ll have to wait and see what it really means,” said an editor with NTV
television’s weekly analytical program Itogi.

Primakov, 68, first headed Boris Yeltsin’s Foreign Intelligence Service and
then his Foreign Ministry, positions in which he had the reputation of being a
rather secretive man.

Upon his appointment as prime minister, however, many of his friends and
allies spoke of him as an open man and a joker. Meanwhile, Primakov himself has
promised that he will be more open with the press than he was as either the
foreign minister or as Russia’s spy chief.

He has also, however, brought in a leading Communist Party member, Yury
Maslyukov, as his right-hand man on the economy – and the Communist Party has
repeatedly called for establishing a special state organ to monitor and control
the Russian press.

Speaking to those fears, Primakov promised Wednesday that “there would be no
red revanche,” Interfax reported. Korotkov denied reports that there was an
actual document prohibiting government officials from talking to the press. “I
think Primakov simply asked for it (verbally),” he said.

It was impossible to establish how busy new government officials were
Wednesday afternoon because their secretaries were already following Primakov’s
new marching orders and deflecting all media queries to Korotkov’s office.

Oleg Panfilov, an activist with the Glasnost Foundation, sharply criticized
the information ban. Panfilov called the move illegal and unconstitutional.

“How can there be a legal order canceling the constitution, even if for only
a few days?” Panfilov asked rhetorically.

He said that the constitution guarantees every official the right to talk to
the media if he so chooses.

“Even if a state of emergency is announced in the country, journalists must
have guaranteed access to information,” Panfilov said.