Soviet Press Talk Turkey, and Fish

Moscow media swap notes with US colleagues

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

ALEKSANDR TIKHOMOROV, popular Soviet TV journalist, member of the Supreme Soviet, and, until this summer, Communist Party delegate, was very unhappy. The focal point of Mr. Tikhomorov's displeasure at the moment was not the uneven progress of perestroika (restructuring), nor the uncertainty in the debates over Baltic statehood. Tikhomorov's concern was directed at a three-inch shiner minnow attached to the business end of his fishing line. In the universal language of fishermen, Tikhomorov shrugged his shoulders.

``No fish.''

Although his love for fishing remains the same, professional life is different for Tikhomorov and other Soviet journalists in the era of Mikhail Gorbachev. Since the Soviet leader came to power in 1985, Soviet print and broadcast journalists have been granted more freedoms, both to report news and to travel.

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Last month, seven Soviet broadcast journalists took advantage of that freedom, participating in a first-of-its-kind forum on democracy and television, hosted by St. Paul public television station KTCA. The forum will result in a 90-minute program, scheduled to air on both United States and Soviet TV sometime this fall.

After discussing such weighty matters as censorship and propaganda, the Soviets spent some free time on a popular Minnesota fishing lake, failing to catch fish along with American journalists.

The similarities between Soviet and American journalists do not end there. Freedom of the press was added to the new Soviet Constitution in June with the adoption of a new press law. In July, press freedoms were expanded by Mr. Gorbachev's decree.

If fired, `Where can we go?'

Not only was the right to report the news written into the Constitution, but enterprising Soviets can open their own TV stations, if they can raise the money.

Even with the new rules, the Soviet press remains handcuffed by the old Communist bureaucracy, which runs television in the country. Until new stations are up and running, the specter of censorship still hangs over the Soviet broadcasters.

``If we are fired, where else can we go?'' says Tikhomorov, a veteran political reporter. ``We only have one television [network].''

Before 1985, all programming was controlled by the central government. Tikhomorov estimates that, today, 50 percent of the news content is controlled in some way by the state.

The results, appropriately, are mixed. Recently, a ``60 Minutes''-style investigative piece was aired on shoddy construction practices in Moscow apartment buildings, says Oleg Tochilin, head of a Soviet radio department. An example of what does not air was Sergei Medvedev's spring interview with an anti-communist leader.

The progress of press freedoms was rapid from 1985 to 1989, the journalists agree, but slowed considerably in 1990, perhaps prompting the constitutional changes. ``The [Soviet] media ran into a crisis and was frozen for a moment,'' says Nick Hayes, professor of Soviet studies at Hamline University in St. Paul.

``We have gained nothing in the last year,'' Mr. Medvedev says.

Last spring, Medvedev's report on a 400,000- to 500,000-person demonstration was nearly cut by his superiors, who thought the crowd was closer to 80,000. Their first reaction ``was to ban the story as if it didn't exist, as if it didn't happen,'' he says. Medvedev won the argument, and the story aired with his estimate.

Bureaucrats squelch shows

The reasons for the slowdown in the progress of press freedom are unclear, although Tikhomorov blames the bureaucracy. One news program, called ``Seven Days,'' was preempted after some higher-up objected to its content, but those who prevented the program from airing have been replaced, he says.

Tikhomorov noted that American TV is not without weaknesses: Negative TV ads and the high cost of campaigns can be viewed as a form of propaganda. The Soviets were long told that US media were controlled by whomever bought commercial time, he said. ``I somehow thought that maybe those old propagandistic clich'es are not that far from the truth.''

But after several fruitless hours of fishing on Lake Minnetonka, Tochilin was prepared to do some propaganda of his own.

``I will go to the store and buy some fish,'' he said with a smile, ``and then take a picture of it for my wife. That's what I do when I go away in the Soviet Union.''

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