Bad News from Russia

July 21, 1992

Not even a year has elapsed since last August's abortive coup d'etat sounded the death knell to the Soviet Union. But Moscow again is a battle ground. Not of tanks or gun-toting soldiers but of politicians trying to bring Russia's free-wheeling media under tighter controls.

The Supreme Soviet, the legislature of Russia, has targeted the country's most respected daily newspaper as the test case. It wants to take over Izvestia, which spoke courageously for freedom of the media during the rule of Mikhail S. Gorbachev and has outspokenly exposed corruption and official duplicity ever since. "The Izvestia case is just the beginning of a wide-scale attack on the freedom of the press and speech," maintains the newspaper's editor, Igor Golembiovsky.

So it would seem. The Supreme Soviet has also announced its intention to create a council to oversee state-run media organizations. Such bodies are not unknown in many other countries where the electronic media in particular are run by the government. But in Russia, this scheme is seen by many as a step toward reintroducing censorship.

A vigorous free press has emerged in Russia during the past year despite the many difficulties caused by shortage of newsprint and skyrocketing inflation. While many of the new voices are responsible, some papers are nothing more than purveyors of smut and scandal. Politicians nostalgic about the quieter days of communism tend to lump all the newspapers together and complain about the media being destructive and anarchistic.

Under communism, no independent newspapers existed. All newspapers were published either by the Communist Party or by trade unions and other tightly controlled official organizations. Most day-to-day censorship functions were in the hands of a central bureaucracy.

Until the fall of communism, Izvestia was published by the U.S.S.R. Supreme Soviet. The newspaper then declared its independence and continued as a corporation run by its employees. It stepped on many influential toes.

In March, Izvestia published a lengthy article, accusing Ruslan Khasbulatov, speaker of the Supreme Soviet, of corrupt practices. Mr. Khasbulatov, an economist and former communist boss, shot back by claiming Izvestia was deep in debt and losing readership. Izvestia sued him for slander. When the case came up for a hearing, Mr. Khasbulatov failed to appear. Instead, the Supreme Soviet initiated a move to take over Izvestia.

Machine politicians have always attempted this kind of clumsy bullying. But it must be stopped, because it could pave the way for wider efforts to muzzle Russia's voices of freedom.

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