If you follow the news from Russia closely, you can see signs almost every day that the Russian government is tightening its control over the country. The Kremlin is using some of the same techniques its rulers used in the days of the Soviet Union - locking up dissidents, rewriting history to glorify the country's communist past, organizing nationalist youth groups, and strengthening its grip on the media.
And it is not only the Russian media that the government is targeting. It has also begun silencing one of the most important voices of the foreign media by banning Russian language news programs of the BBC World Service on local radio stations. Licensing authorities blocked plans last fall by the BBC to broadcast on stations in Moscow and St. Petersburg, citing â€œtechnical reasons.â€ More recently, a BBC partnership with the Moscow FM station â€œBolshoi Radioâ€ was abruptly cancelled when unnamed â€œprivate investorsâ€ took over the station.
The British press suspects the BBC's problems are linked to the diplomatic crisis between Russia and Britain over the mysterious poisoning of a Russian exile in London. But Russian media activist Oleg Panfilov believes the ban is simply part of a larger Kremlin drive to silence all independent media voices before the next Russian elections. He explains, â€œThat's the mentality of the ex-KGB men in the Kremlin.â€
Depressing, isn't it? President Putin should realize that even in a â€œmanaged democracy,â€ independent media can be tolerated. But before you say it couldn't happen in America, look at the case of a foreign broadcaster that is trying to make its voice heard in the United States.
Al Jazeera English, a spin-off from the original Arabic 24-hour television news channel, has been effectively banned from the American airwaves. That's because it has been demonised by the American political establishment, and almost all American cable companies are too craven to run it. They are afraid of losing customers and advertisers.
Al Jazeera English is not just a translation of the Arabic version. It is an entirely new service, based like the original in Qatar, but aimed at an English speaking audience around the world. It is largely staffed by former BBC, American and European broadcasters, and since its launch last fall, claims to have reached an audience of around 80 million homes.
Very few of them are in the United States. To my knowledge, it is carried only by a small cable company in Burlington, Vermont, and another in Toledo, Ohio. If you want to watch it in America you have to see it on the web, and unless you have a high-speed connection, that is not a satisfactory option. Dave Marash, formerly an ABC â€œNightlineâ€ correspondent, co-anchors the channel during American evening viewing hours, but he is basically talking to a tiny group of determined web watchers.
That's too bad, because the channel is worth watching occasionally. It is professionally produced, even slick, and covers parts of the world that most other news services do not reach. It is especially strong on stories from the Middle East, the Far East and Africa, precisely the areas where American channels are weakest.
No, it does not broadcast a daily diet of beheadings and messages from Osama Bin Laden. What it does do are hard news and features, in depth and with a focus different from its Western rivals. Call it alternative viewing with an international and Third World point of view. Americans might learn something if they were able to tune in.
Of course, the limits on freedom of the media are not the same in Russia and in America. The problem in Russia is blunt government control. In America, it is more a problem of self-censorship. If most Americans really wanted to hear alternative or unpopular points of view in their living rooms, broadcasters would be falling all over each other to provide them.