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Balkarian Town Reintroduces Censorship

In a bid to gag the independent media, the local authorities in Prokhladny have illegally established a so-called "Press Service" which has been charged with the censorship of mutinous newspapers
By Yuri Akbashev

The last 10 years of democratic reform have apparently bypassed Prokhladny. In fact, Kabardino-Balkaria's second town seems to have made little progress since the Brezhnev era. And the scandal which has erupted over the regional newspaper, My I Gorod ("Our Town and Us"), could herald a return to the bad old days.


In a nutshell, local bureaucrats have been attempting, with bear-like clumsiness, to oust the paper's editor, Sergei Sheredega. My i Gorod, they claim, has deliberately set out to undermine their authority and has joined the mud-slinging ranks of the "gutter press".


Finally, the recently appointed head of the local administration, Yuri Yatsenko, decided it was time to lay down the law.


To this end, he called a meeting of local editors to discuss "a proposed collaboration between the city administration and the mass media". Held in Yatsenko's private chambers, the gathering included Valery Krushelnitsky, editor of the state newspaper, Prokhladny Izvestia, Alim Kholamkhanov, head of Prokhladny state radio, two independent newspaper editors and the "defendant-in-chief", Sergei Sheredega.


The meeting started off on a calm and orderly footing. The representatives of the state media praised the local authorities for their exceptional generosity. They said that local journalism was flourishing in the warm glow of official tolerance. It was as if they were reading from a script.


The trouble began when Sheredega was given the floor. Without mincing his words, the My i Gorod editor stated, "The media doesn't set out to regale people with sleaze. Newspapers should only present the truth, independent of the actual content. But there are plenty of bureaucrats who avoid any contact with the press."


Sheredega could hardly have anticipated the storm of indignation that greeted his comments. The assembled bureaucrats started dividing the local media into "real" newspapers and "gutter press" - publications which, they said, went out of their way to dig up salacious stories and sensational revelations.


Yuri Yatsenko then made a speech which will no doubt go down as a landmark in the history of media oppression in the North Caucasus. "Don't forget that you live in the town of Prokhladny," he said. "You must live by the laws of this town. You never have been and never will be the fourth estate here!"


Yatsenko - the former head doctor at the local hospital - went on to say, "If you continue in the direction you're going, we'll quickly sort you out. By legal means, of course..." he added, as an afterthought.


Other bureaucrats leapt into the fray. "There can be no truth in the press," said one. "There should be only objective information." By "objective", we can assume he meant information which does not contradict the views of the Prokhladny authorities.


The police chief, Colonel Sladkov, head of Yatsenko's praetorian guard, rounded on Sheredega. "You'd better not touch me," he hissed. "You're nobody in this town. If we need to say something, we'll go through Prokhladny Izvestia or the local TV channel."


The debacle throws up more questions than answers. Are Russia's president Vladimir Putin and the leader of Kabardino-Balkaria, Valery Kokov, aware that a new state has been founded in Prokhladny? A state that has arbitrarily dismissed Article 58 of the Russian Constitution on "responsibility for infringements of media rights".


And Yatsenko's reference to "legal means" might well give us reason to believe that he has methods up his sleeve that are by no means legal.


But it soon emerged that the threats levelled at Sheredega were only the beginning. Days later, Yatsenko announced the creation of special body -- euphemistically dubbed the Press Service -- which will carefully monitor the content and tone of local newspapers, radio and television stations. Its main task, however, is clearly censorship.


The very existence of such a body is in itself a direct contravention of Article 58 which stipulates, "If any organisation or establishment is charged with the task of censoring the mass media, finance will immediately be discontinued and it will be liquidated in accordance with procedure set out in the legislation of the Russian Federation."


So far the authorities in Nalchik and Moscow have shown no sign of intervening. Probably, they do not care. We can only hope that democracy will eventually triumph in Prokhladny - if only because, for every 10 newspapers that come to a "reasonable agreement" with the bureaucrats, there will always be one that refuses to bow to official pressure. And for every newspaper that is closed down, another will spring up in its place.


Yuri Akbashev is a journalist in Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria


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