High-tech communications undermines Soviet coup Citizenry fights for access to information.

August 21, 1991|By Los Angeles Times Soviet military coup

MOSCOW -- Perhaps the best signal of how difficult it may be for Communist party hard-liners to roll back the reforms of perestroika and resume power in the Soviet Union came the first morning of their coup.

Among the first acts of the new Committee for the State of Emergency -- after seizing control of government broadcasting facilities -- was to hold a lengthy news conference, something previous organizers of Kremlin power grabs never felt obliged to do.

The next day, American television networks conducted live interviews over open phone lines with supporters of Russian President Boris Yeltsin who had locked themselves in the Russian parliament and were preparing for a siege by government tanks. Meanwhile, a prominent Soviet journalist reporting to CBS anchorman Dan Rather was working on a documentary segment with Mike Wallace for "60 Minutes."

The very technologies that George Orwell once feared would be the tool of totalitarian control have made the crackdown in the Soviet Union far more difficult to sustain.

This does not mean that the microchip has somehow made repression obsolete -- or doomed this coup to fail. But as the tanks took up positions yesterday, much of the fight for the Soviet Union was already under way on a new kind of battle ground with sometimes invisible weapons.

Sometime last night, for instance, the government struck at the Soviet Union's independent and underground news agencies by sending jolts of high voltages across the nation's power lines. According to a Leningrad journalist who managed to contact outsiders monitoring events, the jolts fried their equipment.

If conservative hard liners are to regain power in the Soviet Union, a crucial step will be "a return to a more centralized approach to communications," said Diana Dougan, chairman of the international communication studies program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

But even in a country where citizens have to shout to be heard over the phone lines and only the military can be sure their calls will always go through, "there are a number of genies that are already out of the bottle," Dougan said.

Those genies are not only technological. Despite the advent of fax machines and computers, control of information might still be a simple matter had the years of perestroika not loosened the bonds on the nation's press.

The hard-liners did strike swiftly, ordering the shutdown of all but nine government-run newspapers and all independent radio and television stations.

But in a manner unheard of a few years ago, many Soviet journalists boldly refused to comply.

For example, workers at a state-run printing plant here went on strike Monday after the editorial board of the government daily Izvestia refused to publish Yeltsin's appeal to resist the coup.

And when the hard-liners banned broadcasts by reformist radio and television yesterday, the Union of Soviet Journalists faxed a strong anti-coup appeal to journalists asking them to "report only the truth."

Some independent publications continued printing over fax machines, photocopiers and computers -- creating makeshift newspapers and launching a poster campaign in the Metro stations in Moscow.

"We have no other access to trustworthy information," Yura, a 30-year-old mathematician, said as he read from one of the sheets posted in a metro. "This is the only way to find out the truth about the military coup under way in our city."

Three pro-reform newspapers and a Communist Party newspaper -- all of which were not sanctioned to be published by the junta -- published in Leningrad yesterday. Two of them, Smena and Nevskoe Vremya, ran the full texts of statements from Yeltsin and Leningrad's reformist mayor, Anatoly A. Sobcahk, who condemned the coup.

Also in Leningrad an independent radio station, calling itself "Independent City," was still on the air, as was Leningrad's radical-dominated television channel.

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