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Feature Story July 26, 2002
By Mark Ames Browse author Email
Page 4 of 7
"Look at Mari-El," she said. "They've had three different presidents, and the republic is a mess. We've had one, and everything here is so good."

Western journalists have lately begun popping in and out of accessible regional capitals looking for the "regional press" story, the one about how the local bosses stomp on anyone who criticizes them. The story is basically true, though it's not a very exciting one. Nor is it new, or unique. With America now jailing its own citizens without charges, moving to repeal the Posse Comitatus Act, its media in the hands of a few mostly right-wing oligarchs, it's hard to see what the big deal is. I remember the hours and days following 9-11. I was listening to NPR in Louisville, Kentucky, since I didn't get AM radio. The so-called liberal elite from the East Coast kept reminding its NPR listeners, over and over, that we were all going to have to give up our civil liberties. If, after a single two-hour attack by nineteen ragheads, America was ready to trash everything it had supposedly stood for for two hundred years...

Ilya owns one of the three largest newspapers in Chuvashia. He told me the limits of media freedom: don't dig too deeply into corruption at the administration level. You can go after the parliament or mayor.

"We published an article in 1998 about how the health minister Sharapov had used funds to buy himself six apartments in Moscow," he told me. "Using budget money, padding expenses on outlays and skimming the profits, trips to Israel. Next thing I know, tax police raid all my other businesses. I was taken to jail. A criminal slander case was opened up against the general director of our newspaper. We had to print an apology. It took months to calm down."

"Today, if I have a story about someone in the Fyodorov administration, I have to go to his people with it first to make sure I can publish it," said Tantyana Ilin, the editor of the local edition of Moskovsky Komsomolets. "They'll say, 'Let's meet and talk about it. Maybe change this here or there.'"

Alexander Belov used to edit Respublika, a pro-parliament, anti-Fyodorov newspaper during the time when the two branches battled much as they did in Moscow. He was forced to print the paper in neighboring Mari-El, and later, according to other sources, he was forced out of his job.

"It began after the election of Yeltsin in 1996," he said. "After he won, they took revenge because Chuvashia voted for Zyuganov. After that election, we had to print outside of the republic."

He denies that he was forced out of his job at Respublika. "I was tired of bothering the administration. I didn't have another job lined up. I just quit and did nothing for almost a year until I took the AiF job," he said, speaking of working for Argumenty i Fakty. I think he was just protecting his skin. A well-known local communist was in Belov's office when we'd arrived, and returned after we left. He's still got to be careful.

Belove denies that there is much repression. "It's the owners who are more oppressed than the journalists. They want to keep their businesses, and they let us know that," he said. He seemed annoyed with the new fad among Western journalists probing for regional media press repression. "They're all coming down here now."

* * *

Belov studied economics. When he finished the institute, he took a job in a clothing store. In those days, once you completed your education at a VUZ, you were obliged to work for three years in wherever they placed you.

"I was the only male among 10 women," he said. "At first they were quiet. Then they started gossiping. Gossiping and talking all the time. I couldn't take it. It was so awful, all their blabbing, that I went and joined the Red Army just to get away. It was the only way to avoid my obligation to the VUZ."

Joining the Soviet Army to get away from Russian chatterboxes! See, I'm not the only one!

"I was placed in a unit guarding railroads out in the Leningrad Oblast. I was the only one in the unit with a higher education. They'd force the recruits to build railroads, but they needed someone to write about it, to glorify the miserable work. So they chose me. I got to stay behind writing glowing stories about the work being done by the railroad battalion while everyone else sweated it out on the railroads. That's when I realized that journalism was my calling. I decided, 'I like this profession.'"

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