What makes news in the Soviet Union. Tradition of secrecy may block Gorbachev's goal of `openness'
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Each time it could, the Kremlin used delay to prepare the public for bad news or provide justification. Before currency reforms, Soviet media dwelt on foreign inflation. During day delay in announcing the Korean airliner shooting, the media raised accusations of airliner espionage.Skip to next paragraph
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Last week, along with the first announcement of the Chernobyl fire, the official Soviet news agency Tass released a list of atomic accidents that have occurred elsewhere throughout the world and dwelt on dangers in the Western disposal of atomic waste.
If the purpose of withholding the bad news was to prevent panic at home, the result was to create anxiety abroad.
The habit of soft-pedaling bad news has often backfired at home as well. One effect has been to send many Soviets to their shortwave radios to listen to foreign broadcasts whenever anything untoward seems to be taking place. Another effect was to give rise to rumor, readily exaggerated as it spread. The rumor mill has been dubbed ``the OBS news service,'' OBS standing for the initials of a Russian phrase meaning ``an old lady told me.''
In a country which has had censorship for 400 years, the pattern of official concealment has become traditional.
At times, Czarist censorship was lax. But Lenin's Soviet government clamped down, and Stalin tightened control of information to a fantastic degree. A 1947 decree set the seal on this.
It introduced the stiffest penalties, including execution, for disclosing anything not officially permitted -- but gave no indication what was permitted.
In Stalin's time, a widely-circulated story goes, a momentous development at the UN sent reporters scurrying to the phones to transmit the news. Only the correspondent for Pravda, the official party organ, strolled the corridor idly.
``Aren't you going to file anything?'' a Western correspondent asked.
``First I have to find out what Moscow thinks about it,'' the Pravda man answered.
``But the news -- shouldn't you at least send the facts?''
``Oh that,'' replied the Russian. ``It isn't news anyway, until it appears in Pravda.''
Khrushchev relaxed the censorship. Among his first acts, on taking power, was to call in the leading editors and scold them for ignoring their readers and addressing themselves only to the party officialdom.
He placed his son-in-law, Alexei Adjubei, in charge of Izvestia, the government newspaper. Mr. Adjubei jazzed up that dull newspaper with features and lively headlines -- always within the confines of the censorship. Although Khrushchev abolished censorship of foreign correspondents' outgoing dispatches in 1961, he retained domestic Soviet censorship.
But neither Khrushchev's brief burst of openness nor Khrushchev himself lasted long.
Meanwhile, however, Western radio acquired a Soviet audience despite jamming of airwaves.
Now, with his appeal for ``openness,'' Gorbachev is repeating the Khrushchev call for loosening the reins on information. The Chernobyl disaster is his first test.
That he may break the silence about Chernobyl seems indicated by the appointment of a government commission to investigate the accident.
As the Three Mile Island atomic accident and the Challenger shuttle explosion showed, however, such a commission may take a long time to sift the facts and report. The question will be how soon or how slowly the Soviet commission will disclose the basic facts about Chernobyl and its aftermath.
The answer to that question could reveal as much about Gorbachev's credibility and about his power within the Politburo as about the atomic disaster itself.
Leo Gruliow is editor emeritus of The Current Digest of the Soviet Press and a former Moscow correspondent of the Monitor.