THE battle over the future of the liberal Russian daily Izvestia has turned into an open struggle between the government of President Boris Yeltsin and an increasingly strident parliament.
The parliament, led by its chairman Ruslan Khasbulatov, defied President Yeltsin last Friday when it voted to place Izvestia, the most prominent among the "democratic" press, under its control. Yeltsin immediately responded with a vow to protect the media's freedom.
But Information Minister Mikhail Poltoranin told reporters Wednesday that the parliament's resolution was "an illegal one" and said his ministry would refuse to re-register Izvestia as the property of the parliament. The ministry will appeal to the Constitutional Court as soon as the parliament's decision is in final form, he said.
On the same day, parliament leaders threatened to oust the minister. "We would lose our self-respect if the ministry failed to carry out our decisions," said Nikolai Ryabov, head of one of two chambers of parliament. The legislature will "either find ways of making them carry out these decisions or request that they resign from service to the state," he said.
In the view of many observers, the Izvestia conflict is a surrogate battle for political power between Yeltsin and Mr. Khasbulatov, who have been clashing for months over issues such as economic reform. "Khasbulatov is trying to demonstrate he has more power," says Izvestia economics editor Mikhail Berger. "Yeltsin promised nothing would happen to Izvestia but it is happening."
But the Izvestia controversy is also about defining press freedom in a country where the very idea is still relatively new. The move against Izvestia came as the parliament was debating new laws on the press. One proposed bill would place government-appointed "councils of observers" to monitor the state radio and television companies. Another draft amendment to the criminal code provides five years imprisonment for disclosing state secrets, for appeals to seize power, for instigating ethnic or religious strife, or for advocating war.
There have been growing concerns among the Russian media of renewed efforts, led by the former Communists who still have a strong hold in the parliament, to control their activities. Communist demonstrators have targeted the television networks for what they claim is bias. And liberal papers, particularly Izvestia, have drawn the ire of Khasbulatov and others upset over critical reporting of their activities.
"The fledgling diktat over the mass media and the attempt to rein in the collective of the Izvestia newspaper highlights a negative attitude to freedom of expression, openness, and journalistic integrity," the Moscow Union of Journalists declared on Monday. The case against Izvestia is "just the beginning" of a campaign against the free press, Mr. Poltoranin warned.