It Would be Funny if it Weren't so Sad:

The increasingly repressive government of Russian Prime Minister (and former President) Vladimir Putin has now gone so far as to ban satirical criticism of his regime on TV broadcasts:

On a talk show last autumn, a prominent political analyst named Mikhail Delyagin offered some tart words about Vladimir Putin. When the program was televised, Delyagin was not.

His remarks were cut and he was digitally erased from the show, like a disgraced comrade airbrushed from an old Soviet photo. (The technicians may have worked a bit hastily; they left his disembodied legs in one shot.)

Delyagin, it turned out, has for some time resided on the so-called stop list, a roster of political opponents and other critics of the government who have been barred from television news and political talk shows by the Kremlin.

The stop list is, as Delyagin put it, "an excellent way to stifle dissent."

It is also a striking indication of how Putin has relied on the Kremlin-controlled television networks to consolidate power, especially in recent elections.

Opponents who were on television a year or two ago all but vanished during the campaigns, as Putin won a parliamentary landslide for his party and then installed his protégé, Dmitri Medvedev, as his successor. Putin is now prime minister but is still widely considered Russia's leader.

As the International Herald Tribune article linked above points out, virtually of Putin's prominent political opponents are banned from making statements on TV by the "stop list" - including former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov, Vladimir Ryzhkov, and former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, leader of the main liberal democratic opposition party. Since he became President in 2000, Putin's regime has taken control of every major TV station in Russia, all of which are now either owned by the government or have been forcibly transferred to private owners who are Putin allies. So the regime can impose its "stop list" across the board. The entire situation is an abject lesson in the dangers of government control of broadcast media.

Ironically, the leaders of the Communist Party are among those complaining that they have been prevented from appearing on TV by the stop list. Putin himself, of course, was a longtime Communist Party comrade and KGB colonel in the days of the old Soviet Union. Another ironic victim of Putin's media policies quoted in the article is political talk show host Vladimir Pozner, who claims that the government forced him to stop interviewing opposition leaders on his show. I remember Pozner well from his days as a prominent official apologist for the Communist government back in the 1980s, at which time he defended the regime's imprisonment of dissidents such as Andrei Sakharov. Pozner was often deployed by the Soviets as a spokesman on US TV because he speaks English with no accent. In fairness, he has since apologized for some of what he did in those days, though the timing of his mea culpas leaves some room for doubt about their sincerity.

It's difficult to feel sorry for the likes of Pozner and the Communists. Opposition speech was repressed far more thoroughly when they were in power than it is under Putin today. If Pozner had dared to put dissidents on his show back in the 1980s (at least before 1988 or so), he would likely have suffered a much worse fate than merely being censored.

That said, even totalitarians and hypocrites deserve to have their freedom of speech protected. Whatever we may think of Pozner, official censorship is not the right remedy for his misdeeds. And Putin's "stop list" has of course affected many who are far more worthy of our sympathy.