NO laws governed press freedom in the Soviet Union when Sergei Buranov left Moscow three weeks ago for a journalism exchange program in the United States. But on June 12, the first such law passed the Supreme Soviet after a bitter, year-long struggle between liberals and conservatives. When Mr. Buranov returns home this weekend, the sea change in press freedoms that he and other journalists urged for more than two years will be largely written into law.
In a deep and deliberate voice, however, Buranov warns that Soviet journalists and their allies ``face a tough struggle in the years ahead.'' A special problem will be rural areas where conservatives are still in power, he says; and conservatives throughout the country will use the new freedoms to fight perestroika (restructuring). But the fundamental problem right now, he stresses, is that there are no legal precedents.
The Soviet constitution has a generic provision for freedom of the press that has never been applied, he says. And the country is without an independent judiciary to interpret basic questions regarding the rights of the individual and groups versus the state. Further, the printing presses and the paper supply are still controlled by the state, he says in remarkably fluent English.
``Precedents must be established at the same time that glasnost [openness] is achieved in our society, step by step,'' says Buranov. ``Enforcement of the new press law is, for example, yet to be discussed by parliament,'' he continues. ``This is true about other new laws as well, because our courts are in transition. They must learn the rule of law.'' But ``when an editor will try to penetrate a government agency for information, that will set a precedent. When an agency tries to withhold information and a paper goes to court, that will set a precedent. This will all take time, of course.'' Libel suits, too, will set precedents, he notes.
Mr. Buranov was hosted in the US by William Barrett, publisher of Suburban World Inc., which owns a chain of newspapers west of Boston. Mr. Barrett, who spent three weeks in Russia this spring, served up a full slice of American life to the journalist - from a ride in a traffic helicopter to a baseball game to a hometown gathering where he met and quietly charmed local citizens.
At the gathering, Mr. Buranov helped a high school girl with her Russian and paged through a 1943 issue of Life magazine brought by a roofer who said he wanted to represent the US working man. The magazine, with its large portrait of Stalin on the cover, seemed to fascinate the Soviet journalist.
Buranov is a correspondent for the wire agency Novosti, and worked for five years as a Soviet correspondent in New Zealand. His father, also a journalist, first sparked his interest in the news business. His mother, an English teacher, is partially responsible for his remarkable fluency. Buranov himself is divorced, with two school-aged children.
While in the United States, he wrote a guest column on the new Soviet press law for one of Mr. Barrett's papers, the Needham [Mass.] Times. In the column, he related that the entire staff of a small paper in the city of Noginsk, near Moscow, was fired ``for not bowing to political pressure.'' He also said that ``at least two journalists were murdered under circumstances which raised concerns of political revenge.'' He told the Monitor that the Moscow press association subsequently started giving money to the Noginsk newspaper staff, and that they have now started their own independent paper.
Two Soviet specialists in the US State Department who spoke with the Monitor agree that the new Soviet press law is indeed liberal.
``This press law may be historic in more ways than one,'' says one specialist who asked not to be named. ``The Soviet Council of Ministers, about six months ago, sent a conservative press law to the Supreme Soviet - which threw it in the wastebasket. A parliamentary committee then wrote a completely new law, which the conservatives tried to water down. But they did not succeed. This may be the first law in the Soviet Union to have such a dramatic legislative history.''