When a highly placed communist functionary says a country without a free press ``is like a church without a bell,'' clearly something is happening. In this case, it was none other than the Yugoslav information minister and perhaps, therefore, not quite so startling.
But even in a communist state that was into glasnost (openness) long before the appearance of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, it was still going quite far. Much of Yugoslavia's media are now battling to take the limited press freedom of the Tito era farther. Part of the official Establishment approves. But there is still opposition from a significant ``old guard.'' Occasionally an over-inquiring reporter finds himself in court.
Nonetheless, glasnost has begun to spread in some East bloc countries. In at least one instance, the response to ``openness'' is perhaps more enthusiastic than Mr. Gorbachev intends. He has several times lately indicated the limits of openness. Shedding the myths and long conventional party monopoly of wisdom is one thing, he says. But calling to account the system that produced them? No.
Bulgaria is one of the bloc's smaller members at which the Poles and others have always looked down disapproving noses because of its ultra-loyalty to the Soviet Union. But the Sofia media are also taking up the glasnost cue. In December, its second largest daily, Otchestven Front, did what no other bloc paper has done. It published an interview by one of its own journalists with Lech Walesa. And, though the article reflected the bloc view of where Poland's Solidarity union went wrong, it nonetheless gave readers a clear picture of Mr. Walesa's views.
They could read Walesa's unequivocal insistence that economic reform cannot work without parallel political and social pluralism. When asked about guarantees that under Solidarity's program, Poland would remain a ``socialist'' society, Walesa repeated what he once told this writer: ``Labels are not important. It doesn't matter who bakes the bread - whether it be a capitalist or socialist loaf - only that plenty of good bread is produced at prices the worker can afford.''
One can almost hear East European workers saying ``amen'' to that.
In January, Bulgaria's trade union paper, Trud, candidly admitted that an opinion poll taken among workers showed ``decisive support'' for unlimited glasnost in the media.
But limits surely remain. The recent leadership change in Prague, for example, has yet to affect orthodox views there. Spokesmen pay lip service to openness, but criticism must serve ``the party, the people and socialism.'' It is clear who still will decide on that.
This in effect is what Gorbachev says. Manifestly changes of substance have taken place in the Soviet media. Admissions about blots on the past, candor about current problems, more public information are all in order. But not in any sense that might suggest an alternative to the system.
These restrictions are a convenient umbrella, however, for the timid in eastern Europe. Neither Poland nor Hungary, however, is in this category. The Polish media - prodded by a vigorous ``underground'' press the regime itself now almost accepts - have contrived to preserve, and even build on, a considerable pre-martial law margin of press latitude.
In Hungary, many journalists are actively pressing for a new, institutionalized status for the press. Twenty-two journalists recently issued their own view of a perestroika-style renewal of the media. They called for reduced party interference, an end to censorship, more open contacts for journalists with political leaders, and access for non-party groups to press, radio, and TV.
But all is not plain sailing even in avant-garde Hungary. Some 200 journalists and academics have just asked for official authorization to set up an glasnost club as a channel for more information about current reforms. That is very much in line with official policy statements professing to encourage ``democracy from below.'' But the move quickly drew a frosty reaction from the party's propaganda chiefs, with threats reportedly of ``sanctions'' against communist journalists who signed the request.
Increasingly, however, journalists in the East bloc and in Yugoslavia see themselves as part of a conflict between a past and a future generation.
Hungarian and Yugoslav journalists talk, openly, not of scrapping the party, but of regenerating it as a semi-political educational force in place of the jaded, rigid bureaucracies parties have become everywhere. They are out - as one editor put it - to end old ``taboos'' and to reappraise the whole political system.
Such ideas are slowly taking root as part of a broad qualitative reassessment of the party's place within the context of essential economic and political changes.
It is interesting to see party papers having now to fight for circulation as well as credibility. Buying the party sheet was once obligatory with party membership. The rule is increasingly ignored. Even Russia's supposed vox populi (as well as party), Pravda, is apparently losing ground to the more daring exponents of glasnost.
Everywhere an ``old guard'' resists. But increasingly critics are moving beyond questions of alternatives, and pushing a deeper issue: What should ``socialism'' be and how should it be run in a new age?