Press: Watchdog on Shorter Leash

January 16, 1994|By LIZ ATWOOD

When Mikhail S. Gorbachev launched his reform campaign in Russia nine years ago, the first thing he did was restrict vodka sales. The next thing he did was call for greater freedom of the press.

Today, vodka flows freely in Russia, but the press has been restricted. If the fate of the nation follows the fate of its newspapers, democracy in Russia is in for a rough time.

Russian journalists had begun to use their new freedoms to emulate the watchdog press in the United States. They wrote with unprecedented frankness about Stalinist terrors, economic hardships, political missteps, crime, prostitution, drug abuse and AIDS. The newspaper Izvestia tenaciously pursued the truth behind the Soviets' shooting down of the Korean Air Lines jet, and many newspapers attempted to investigate political corruption.

But while barking loudly, and sometimes irresponsibly, the watchdog press in Russia has always been leashed.

Recent events show that the Yeltsin government is willing to tighten the leash when it wants.

After the bloody shoot-out at the Russian Parliament Oct. 3 and 4, Mr. Yeltsin suspended publication of a dozen hard-line and anti-Semitic newspapers, ordering them to change their names and editors. Several mainstream Moscow newspapers appeared with blank spots on their pages where articles had been $H censored and removed.

The president's action directly violated the Russian press law, which forbids the suspension or censoring of a newspaper without a court hearing. But in those days, when tanks were called to the parliament building in order to oust a rebellious vice president and parliament speaker, no one was considering such technicalities.

Television, already firmly in Mr. Yeltsin's control, was also affected. An investigative news program called "600 Seconds" was suspended because its star, Alexander Nevzorov, was ardently in favor of the parliament.

After a few days, Mr. Yeltsin lifted the censorship of the mainstream press, admitting it had been an "excessive" measure.

But the victories of Mr. Yeltsin's opponents in parliamentary elections last month have prompted the president to look again for ways to muzzle the watchdog. Last month, the president decreed that all news agencies must be owned by the state.

More recently, the president has ordered the establishment of "consultative committees" to "advise" newspaper editors. It is still unclear what power these new committees will have. In the Soviet period, newspapers were "advised" by a governing board called Glavlit. That agency stationed representatives in the publishing houses and censored whatever material it deemed contrary to the interests of the Soviet state.

Tightening the leash has not been difficult.

Although most Russian newspapers are owned by their staffs or by private companies, their offices, printing plants and distribution systems have remained firmly in government control.

"We have freedom of speech in our country, but its material base belongs to the government," said Vitaly Tretyakov, editor-in-chief Nezavisimaya Gazeta (Independent Newspaper).

Rampant inflation has made it impossible for newspapers to gain financial independence. Most papers cannot afford to buy their offices and printing plants or establish their own distribution companies. Most national newspapers have been so crippled in recent years that they have had to rely on government subsidies to merely stay in business.

Two weeks ago, Russian newspapers threatened to go on strike unless the government met demands to bring down production costs. The government relented and agreed to take action to hold down costs.

In addition to technological and economic dependence on government, the Russian press depends upon Mr. Yeltsin to protect it from the unsavory alternatives.

Mainstream, independent newspapers support the president because they fear the Communists and nationalists who are trying to oust him.

Many journalists make no pretense of objectivity. "Maybe we could be objective if it was a normal democracy, but this is not normal," said Vadim Poegli, political editor at Moskovsky Komsomolets (Moscow Young Communist). "The alternative is fascism."

At times, the president has shown himself to be a genuine champion of a free press. In 1992, the Russian parliament tired of critical reports in Izvestia and sent troops to seize the newspaper's offices. Mr. Yeltsin's prime minister, Yegor Gaidar, responded by sending his own troops to defend the newspaper.

In April, when the parliament again tried to gain the upper hand over the pro-Yeltsin media and voted to establish local press councils to oversee publications and broadcasts, Mr. Yeltsin issued a decree promising to protect freedom of the press.

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