A YEAR ago, Russian Information Minister Mikhail Poltoranin embraced Andrew Vinogradov and me as we set up Russia's Information Agency (RIA). The idea was to break the monopoly of the official Tass news agency, at that time under party control. This was shortly after the bloodshed in Vilnius and Riga. The Gorbachev administration and Communist Party leaders had launched an attack to oust Boris Yeltsin from the top post in the Russian Federation. In those days, one needed civic courage to leave a stable p osition in the state-run mass media and risk your career for what seemed to many a losing cause.
It did not take much time for RIA to get its piece of the information market. It was the first news agency to report Mr. Yeltsin's victory in the presidential elections last June. It was the only non-official news agency in the USSR that continued freely reporting during the three hard days of the coup last August.
Small wonder that last autumn, RIA's team of several dozen journalists was rated higher than the huge Tass machinery. The majority of the pro-democratic mass media in the Russian provinces chose RIA. Following the failed coup, Mr. Poltoranin used RIA to set up a government news agency, Russian Information Agency Novosti, under the guidance of his ministry, taking over the former Novosti Press Agency (APN), a party propaganda tool.
Now the same Poltoranin wants to get rid of RIA's team. Early this year he initiated a presidential decree stipulating the creation of a state-run superagency - ITAR (Information Telegraph Agency of Russia) on the basis of Tass and RIA Novosti, both of which are to be abolished.
ITAR has been created, according to the decree, "to fight the monopoly in the press." But in fact this is nothing but a pretext to silence the journalists who dared believe in the proclaimed freedom of the press.
The creation of ITAR is a decisive step in establishing government control over the Russian mass media. The idea is based on Tass - for decades the tool for disseminating officially approved information. ITAR is well suited to serve the powers that be in Russia - as its predecessor did those of the former USSR.
"It's a return to intrigue, to impunity, to secrecy; in brief, to the old order," said Andrei Vinogradov, who was removed by Poltoranin from the post of general director of RIA Novosti.
"The press should obey to survive. My employees feel cheated: They have been promised independence and freedom of the press but got none of it," he added.
Poltoranin claims the new superagency is not a monopoly. On the contrary, he intends to establish a private news agency called MIA ("International Information Agency" in Russian), and reinstate RIA as a joint stock company. However, his ministry will be the chief shareholder and he plans to get rid of the present RIA team and introduce, in his words, "normal people." The present wire service "will be limited," he said, "a byproduct" of other commercial activities.
The problem is not just the scrubbing of a news agency. The dissolution of RIA is only one example of the creeping effort to reestablish government control over the media.
Last fall, the information ministry threatened to prosecute Nezavisimaya Gazeta (Independent Newspaper) after it published an interview with a Ukrainian high official criticizing the position of the Russian government. Documents were seized later during the search of the offices of Rossiya, a weekly whose journalists had exposed facts about the Soviet Communist Party's secret financing of ideological clients abroad. In St. Petersburg, the director of a local state TV company banned a program made by a jo urnalist whom he did not like, under the pretext that he allegedly had not paid his rent.
Indeed, Yeltsin's radical economic reform has brought unprecedented pressure on media. Gennady Burbulis, first deputy prime minister, put it this way: "If we make decisions and bear responsibility for them, this in no way means that we completely expose all the information on which the decisions are based. We still refrain from informing the Russian population about our real economic situation."
In fact, when RIA reporters disclosed a document on plans to freeze cash circulation last November, the government immediately assigned the Federal Security Agency (FSA), the former KGB, to investigate the case. In his report, then chief of the agency, Viktor Ivanenko, stated that the journalists used sources other than official information and criticized them for refusing to reveal their sources - although media law gives them that right.
The FSA also advanced recommendations to minister Poltoranin, calling upon him "to draw journalists' attention to their personal responsibility as mass media workers for authenticity of the information they use. It is necessary to minimize the use of unproven facts which, once published, can play an essentially provocative role, under the pretext of not disclosing their sources of information, which is guaranteed by law." For his part, the FSA chief claimed his people "will carry out preventive work" wit h individual journalists.
Small wonder the FSA and the prosecutor general pressed Parliament to amend the law on the media. Finally, the Parliament adopted provisions forbidding the use of hidden cameras and stipulating that not only the court but also law enforcement officers could now demand that a journalist disclose his source of information.
As a wave of protests from journalists and legal experts followed, the information minister kept silent. In the summer of 1990, this man had proclaimed he was forming his ministry only to promote free press. With his mission complete, he claimed, he would disband the ministry.
As the communist regime crumbled, all the press became virtually free. Last year more than 1,700 independent newspapers were registered. Yet the ministry, in keeping with Parkinson's Law, has been taking on ever more power.
Early this year, Ruslan Khasbulatov, Speaker of the Russian Parliament, expressed his dissatisfaction over the way the media was covering the Parliament's deliberations. In his philippic, he called for a review of the press, using levers of persuasion - from financing to supply of newsprint.
Increasingly, the government has been exerting its influence. Russian radio and TV belong to the state, while newspapers, though formally independent, actually depend on state-run monopolies for postal and distribution services and supplies of newsprint. The rising price of newsprint supplies and communication services has forced many editors to go to the state for subsidies to survive. Thus they find themselves in the grip of Poltoranin's ministry which allocates the subsidies.
In Russia today, as in the Soviet Union in the past, power rests with those who are in charge of distribution of scarce goods. Poltoranin is an old hand at using such power. He came to Yeltsin's camp after being a columnist for the main communist daily - Pravda - and is intimately familiar with all the tricks the Communist Party used to rule the press.
One need not bother to issue formal warnings. For example, a call on government phone line No. 1 is quite enough for an editor to understand the way he should behave - unless he would like to see his paper cut off from subsidized supplies of newsprint. At least this was the kind of pressure used to silence those newspapers that criticized the decision to abolish RIA. Newspaper editors were even advised not to use RIA news reports.
The information minister also plans to hand over to ITAR the important publishing house Novosti. This reinforces the state position in the book publishing industry, following the formation of large state-owned conglomerate of publishing houses called Respublika. The TV studios of RIA-Novosti (formerly Novosti TV) will produce government propaganda films while the former Novosti structures are reorganized to serve propaganda purposes abroad. The state monopoly over telecommunications, transportation, and newsprint production completes the picture.
In short, the Russian people are doomed to consume all the news that's fit for the government.