Ex-Communist Countries Grapple With Press Freedoms


THE new freedoms of the printed or spoken word were the most immediate fruits of Eastern Europe's revolution. Overnight, censorship was gone, as were black lists - and often jail - for proscribed authors. Diversity replaced the communist press monopoly. Forbidden plays could be staged. Outlawed authors could at last be printed and read in their own languages in their own countries.

But if life was tough for them before, newspapers, publishers, and theaters are finding difficulties today as well.

Some are economic. Some are even reminiscent of the detested past. Most, however, are endemic to an altogether new situation in which, having lost their former role, those who sustained the old order have yet to adjust to a new one.

For 40 years before 1989, official restrictions vested writing, moviemaking, theater, and the arts generally with a peculiarly more significant role that they have in an open society.

A typed samizdat book often had a readership of tens of thousands. A banned play was surreptitiously "acted" at home or performed in a poky hall in some remote village.

Audiences knew how to read or listen between the lines. Poles would always turn a play by their poet of 1848, Adam Mickiewicz, or passages from Beethoven's Fidelio into demonstrations for freedom.

The need for that kind of ideological protest is over. The new freedoms are taken for granted. The public's primary concern is how the new economic systems affect day-to-day living.

Under the communist governments, once a book had passed censorship, publishers could count on a huge press run profitable to all concerned, despite low book prices. Likewise, once his script was approved, a film producer had no budgetary problems. Now, sales prospects and the box office decide.

Newspapers, the essence of the printed word, are especially vulnerable and not only to higher (now unsubsidized) production costs.

There is an unwelcome reminder of old times in the way the new East European governments are beginning to show themselves over-sensitive to criticism, charging that journalists are "biased" and that editors are not supportive enough of official policy.

A Hungarian draft press law required the news media to be "objective" and "impartial" - favorite ambiguities of the communists! - and visualized a politically handpicked committee to see that it was. Journalists' protests, however, forced the government to think again.

Another concern is emerging: the advent of Western press barons in a newly open and privatized market. In Hungary, almost half the national and regional dailies are owned by or are already pretty much in foreign hands.

There is general agreement on the need to institute independent radio and television to break four decades of state monopoly. But many East Europeans say excessive foreign ownership could mean outside influences in local affairs.

"We should protect our media against rule by foreign capital," says the Czech Association of Private Broadcasters, urging that independent stations be in Czech hands.

Inevitably, considerable confusion in the arts and in the media continues. There is a perceived problem that, while interference is gone, something in its place is lacking.

The new laissez faire in culture must still include an equivalent to such Western institutions as arts councils - funded not only by government but also by private sponsors - to assist commercially less assured theater, music, or publishing.

Unfortunately, East Europe's quickie entrepreneurialism has yet to develop the necessary rich and right-minded types.

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