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.

The campaign to control the media began almost as soon as Putin took office in 2000. His administration attacked the wealthy oligarchs who had privatized -- often illegally and with disastrous effects for regular Russians -- many state enterprises, driving those who dared to use their stations to support political opponents out of the country.

But Russians have never had much experience with independent news.

"In Russia, there never was freedom of speech. The population had 80 years of communistic propagation -- they have gotten used to this type of television," Panfilov said. "Only a small part of the population can search for independent sources of information through the Internet, or by the old Soviet tradition to listen to programs of foreign radio stations in Russian."

The lack of interest in independent news was demonstrated recently at the annual Andrei Sakharov journalism awards -- Russia's equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize -- for investigative journalism. About two dozen people were present at the awards ceremony in Moscow, with almost no press coverage.

Anna Lebedeva won the top award for her work in a small town in central Russia. During her acceptance speech, she said that because of the danger of her work and the lack of public interest, she was considering switching to "writing restaurant reviews."

"It is a terrible situation," said Alexei Simonov, the head of the award committee and the president of the Glasnost Defense Foundation. "If you want to risk your life for very little reward, then join this profession."

Indeed, Russia is the third most dangerous country in which to practice journalism, after Iraq and Alergia. In 2006, two journalists were killed in Russia.

Two years ago, Forbes' Russian editor Paul Klebnikov, an American of Russian descent, was shot to death on a Moscow street. The publisher of Forbes' Russian edition has said that the murder is "definitely linked to his professional activity."

Klebnikov often investigated government corruption and the closed-door dealings of the country's wealthiest oligarchs. A new trial has recently been opened in the case, overturning the acquittal of two suspects.

In October, Anna Politkovskaya, Russia's most famous human rights journalist, was gunned down in a contract-style killing in her Moscow apartment building. Known for her critical reporting on the Kremlin and her investigative work in Chechnya, Politkovskaya had received top international awards for her courage.

But in Moscow, her death was barely acknowledged by Putin, who waited days before making a public statement. Some believe that Politkovskaya's murder and Litvinenko's poisoning are tied, because the former spy was rumored to be investigating her death.

Politkovskaya described her work, which often took her undercover to Chechnya, as part of the Russian theory of "little business."

"It's a special Russian theory that if you can't change the whole world, you need to do some little things to help specific people," she said in a phone interview last year. "Russian journalism was and now is the possibility to help people first of all in their everyday life and in their catastrophic life. I decided that it was a very nice theory for me."

Politkovskaya's tradition of investigative journalism continues at the muckraking independent publication Novaya Gazeta, where she published her investigative pieces. The work often comes at great risk. In the past two months, two more journalists have received death threats. The paper has a national circulation of 500,000, but it also participates in the practice -- widespread in Russia -- of accepting money to publish pieces as news.

Still, journalists at the paper are committed to pursuing stories of government corruption and human rights abuses no matter what the cost. In the main newsroom, where heated editorial meetings occur every morning, three photos of slain Novaya Gazeta journalists, including Politkovskaya, are a silent reminder of the grave risks.

"We are considered the last independent newspaper in Russia," said investigations editor Roman Shleynov. " We have journalists who will continue Anna's work. But in Russia, the murdering of journalists is the tradition."