The essence of a free press is its willingness and ability to criticize the government. Reporters and editors help keep officials honest.
That part of the democratic ethos has been a fragile flower in post-Soviet Russia. It's now being firmly trodden on by the regime of Vladimir Putin. With the takeover of the independent television network NTV by the government-owned gas monopoly Gazprom, followed quickly by the shuttering of an independent newspaper and firings at a leading news magazine, the number of places in Russia where probing journalism can take root is dwindling (see story, page 7).
The crackdown in Moscow is all too likely to send a message throughout the country that government should not have to tolerate critical journalists.
Mr. Putin denies that these events are anything but reorganizations of economically shaky enterprises. But there's little doubt that he blessed the moves by Gazprom. As soon as the gas company got a controlling interest in the media concerns, it silenced voices that had been critical of Putin's policies.
NTV and the closed media outlets had let Russians know that putting down the Chechen rebellion was far from a succession of victories. They exposed high-level corruption. They raised nettlesome questions about the handling of last summer's loss of a nuclear submarine and its crew. They helped make informed public opinion a factor in Russian political life.
That was not to the liking of many politicians inside the Kremlin, who, though they may voice democratic ideals, easily revert to autocratic habits.
Can the fired journalists find other ways to make their voices heard? And can Western leaders, who've been busily forming working relationships with Putin, do anything to encourage free expression in Russia?
Some Western investors, notably Ted Turner and George Soros, have been willing to underwrite independent media in Russia. But it's less clear now where their money would go.
Western aid for the development of democratic institutions in Russia, including free media, should continue. People-to-people exchanges, so that different viewpoints and ideas can be traded, are more important than ever.
Putin no doubt envisions the rise of a progressive, newly influential Russia. But that ideal can only be realized by a well-informed people capable of forming their own views about how their leadership is doing.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor