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The Moscow Times, June 8, 2004

The Skinny on Campaign Election Coverage

By Alexei Pankin

Alexei PankinLast week, NTV anchor Leonid Parfyonov was fired for going public with an internal memo ordering him not to air an interview with the widow of slain Chechen separatist leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev -- an order that Parfyonov said amounted to censorship. The general outpouring of sympathy for Parfyonov impels me to do a little whistle-blowing of my own.

In May and June 1996, I served as coordinator of a program devoted to monitoring press coverage of the presidential election. The program, funded by the European Commission, operated out of the European Institute for the Media in Dusseldorf. We began our work a month before election day. After the first week of monitoring, our observers released a report demonstrating that all of the major television stations, both state-owned and independent, were actively promoting the incumbent Boris Yeltsin and giving short shrift to his rivals, including Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky.

Shortly thereafter, I got a call from the EC's external relations department. I was told that by distributing the report under the aegis of the European Union I had created the impression that the EU was meddling in Russia's internal affairs.

Issuing weekly bulletins and use of the EU logo were spelled out in our contract, but erring on the side of caution, I suggested that we could drop the logo. Not enough. I was told to instruct my team not to distribute any information or talk to the press until after the election.

Had I heard right? Was I being instructed to follow verbal orders rather than honor a signed contract? Yes, came the reply. I had heard right.

I have recounted this episode in a few short paragraphs, but at the time it involved several days on the phone with Brussels trying to hammer out a compromise between my desire to fulfill our contract to the letter and the EU's desire not to compromise Yeltsin's image as a democratic leader.

Our first press release had caught the attention of the world press, however, and the observers looked rather foolish as they avoided the press for the duration of the campaign.

Where's the scandal in all this?

You have no doubt noticed how often foreign and domestic journalists, politicians and think tanks refer to the critical assessments made by international observers during the parliamentary elections last December and the presidential campaign earlier this year. On NTV's talk show "K Baryeru!" last week, independent State Duma deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov angrily confronted his debating opponent, Central Elections Commission chief Alexander Veshnyakov, with observers' reports of biased television coverage favoring the party of power.

Every time Europeans arrive to monitor press coverage of elections in Russia -- a practice that began in December 1993 -- they reach the same conclusion. In 1993, the then-EU ambassador protested the findings of the EIM monitors by walking out of the news conference at which the team released its findings. The Russian media entirely ignored this scandalous behavior. Our EIM team included the phrase "free but not fair" in its report on the 1996 election on the insistence of team member and Guardian journalist Jonathan Steele. At the time, only the newspaper Moskovskiye Novosti picked up on the report, so it's not surprising that even the highly competent Ryzhkov thinks that it was coined for the 2003-04 election cycle.

Even without the reports filed by expensive foreign observers, it is obvious that getting Yeltsin re-elected with a 3 percent popularity rating required far more dirty tricks than installing Putin, who enjoys a stable 70 percent popularity rating, in the Kremlin for a second term. And the fact that observers and "democrats" let the major violations slide while harping on for months about trifles only confirms the average Russian's delusion that foreigners find everything about Russia interesting apart from democracy.


See also:

the original at

Freedom of Speech and Media Law in Russia

Presidential elections 1996

The Moscow Times, June 8, 2004

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