Russian Media Called 'Empire of Lies'

While the world buzzes with disbelief and fascination over the poisoning and death of a Russian ex-spy, the story has captured scant attention in Russia.

Ask any seemingly cosmopolitan Russians on a downtown Moscow street about their take on the international scandal, and they will most likely shrug and suggest that the former spy Alexander Litvinenko poisoned himself just to make Russian President Vladimir Putin look bad.

The apathy is emblematic of the overall state of public information in Russia today. The episode, which dominated front page news around the world for weeks, has received little attention in the Russian media, with most state-controlled outlets dismissing allegations of government involvement.

Jazz Ayvazyan, a 20-year-old computer programmer who lives in central Moscow, hadn't heard anything about the poisoning until he traveled to London for business a week after the story broke in early November. But he says he wasn't at all surprised to see that the news was suppressed.

"There is definitely no press in the pure meaning of this word in Russia at the moment," he said. "TV news looks like the Soviet propaganda from when I was an 8-year-old boy in the mid-'80s. I just stopped watching Russian channels and replaced them with Discovery kind of entertainment."

Ayvazyan is an example of how far Russians have come in the decade since communism fell. He drives a fancy car and travels often to Western Europe. But he said that despite the fact that he lives a comfortable lifestyle, he doesn't feel that he is living in a democratic country.

"People easily get confused about what's better," he said. "Ten years ago we were poor money-wise. But there was an attempt to establish real democracy with real freedom. Now we live better, earn more, have the right food, but the relationship with anything that can be called government -- police, tax agency, etc. -- is much worse. They now feel the power, and they are the power."

Ayvazyan said this power translates into a high level of corruption that infects every aspect of everyday life. He says he often has to bribe officials to get permits.

"Government and crime are almost same things in Russia at the moment," he said.

And the poisoning of the ex-spy: "All big crimes are done under supervision of people who are the government or are covered by some people in government. I'm sure that action like poisoning could take place only with participation of government."

But you won't see that perspective broadcast on Russia's main television news programs, which are state-owned and never criticize the government.

Oleg Panfilov, the head of the Moscow-based Journalism in Extreme Situations, called Russian media the "empire of lies."

"From a position of a freedom of speech, the situation in the Russian mass media can be estimated as catastrophic," he said. "Television is the core with more than 90 percent of the population depending on it as their main source of information. But now in Russia all five national telechannels are used by the state for propagation, for distribution of an official position."

Panfilov said that there is next to no opportunity for Russians to receive independent news.

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