Russian Journalists on the Barricades

The failure of the coup and humiliation of the Party ushered in a new era of press freedom in the erstwhile Soviet Union - or did it?

THE last couple of weeks have been eventful ones for Soviet journalists. After helping to end a coup, they now find themselves freed of their former master, the Communist Party.There would seem to be good reason to celebrate. But there is also considerable cause for concern, not just about press freedom but about the broader process of democratic reform. On Aug. 22, a day after the coup collapsed, Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed a decree "nationalizing" party printing presses in Russia - presumably making it easier for non-party newspapers to get printed. At the same time, he ordered the closure of six party papers for supporting the coup, setting a dangerous precedent for the use of dictatorial methods to silence political opposition. Even when Mikhail Gorbachev still wielded great power, in 1989, he failed in an effort to remove the editor of a single newspaper, the muckraking weekly Argumenty i Fakty. Yet in a single day, with the mere stroke of a pen, Yeltsin succeeded in closing six newspapers, encountering little if any resistance. There is good reason to believe that Soviet journalists will not settle for being the official voice of a noncommunist government. It was, after all, journalists who took it upon themselves to inform the public and rally support for Yeltsin and the cause of reform as tanks rolled through Moscow's streets. However, the fact that the Russian president should seek to limit the scope of free expression - the very power that helped defeat the coup - should give pause to those who would stake Russia's future on him. Staff members of the former government newspaper Izvestia have already shown how readily they can reorganize themselves in democratic fashion. After the coup failed, they forced the resignation of their editor, a conservative, and decided to register Izvestia as an independent paper. Even before the coup, Soviet journalists had begun to take matters into their own hands. After passage of a liberal press law last year, many publications broke away from the Communist Party. Many new magazines and newspapers - some with political affiliations, some without - soon appeared. Earlier this summer, before the coup, several prominent journalists spoke enthusiastically of plans to set up their own printing plants and distribution networks. Some were even working on establishing a private, independent television station to serve Russia and possibly the entire Soviet Union. Their main problem, they said, was economic rather than political: They lacked equipment and raw materials. Yegor Yakovlev, the former editor-in-chief of Moscow News - one of the papers that achieved independence before the coup - recalled with irony the words of the founder of the Soviet state: "In the West there cannot be a free press as long as there is a monopoly over the presses and newsprint." "I won't take it upon myself to judge the situation in the West," Yakovlev said, "but that's exactly our situation now." Whether the Soviet press will be able to achieve the political and economic independence it seeks depends on the direction of reform. It remains to be seen how deep Yeltsin's commitment is to press freedom and to what end nationalization of printing presses will be carried out. The disintegration of communist rule holds out the promise of freer access to printing plants and broadcast facilities. But there is fear, expressed by many Soviet journalists, that as it frees itself from its former master, the party, the press could chain itself to new ones: foreign investors or new government sponsors. In light of Yeltsin's decree, that fear has become more tangible. After Yeltsin's election to the Russian presidency this past June, Russian Minister of Press Mikhail S. Poltoranin said that he welcomed newspapers critical of the republican government; he also said that his ministry was not interested in killing off party publications. "If there are people who believe them, if there are readers, let them read these papers." Yeltsin claims to be a democratic reformer. If he is, he should do as Poltoranin suggests: He should let the people decide. If, as many Russians believe, Pravda or other former hard-line party papers merit oblivion, the circumstances of their demise are important. The power to summarily close one paper - or six - puts every paper and every Soviet journalist at risk.

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