Regimes and Media Have Much to Learn About Press Freedom

AMONG the first fruits of democracy in Eastern Europe was the news media's liberation from ideological state bondage.

But how free they are, in fact, is still open to some question in Central and Eastern Europe.

Gains are considerable. But too often the media become unnecessary battlefields between journalists and governments. Too often governments' attitudes recall a past where the role of the media was to further ruling party policy, not to differ or criticize.

In the past, journalists who criticized became known as dissidents, courting dismissal or, frequently, imprisonment. In these new times things are not as bad as that, but disturbing tendencies show how easily they could be.

Newspapers, radio and television stations, and individual journalists are subjected to pressures - and sometimes threats - by government leaders averse to real openness of information and apt to dismiss critical media comment as "siding with the opposition," as though that were undemocratic.

* In Hungary, a prolonged row between Prime Minister Joszef Antall and President Arpad Goncz over broadcasting controls nearly provoked a constitutional crisis. The premier wanted to sack the directors of state-run radio and television under a 1974 Communist decree "legalizing" government control. The president ruled that the decree violated press freedom and refused to endorse the dismissals.

* In Croatia, similar tensions arose between the ruling Democratic Union (DU) and independent newspapers and magazines. A special target was the independent weekly Danas, which in Communist times crusaded persistently for press freedom.

Under the new regime, Danas elected to remain independent of any party political position or allegiance as it had before. But a government increasingly more nationalist than democratic did not like it.

After a series of official financial and political sanctions against the magazine, even a renaming in a privatized relaunch did not save Danas from a second closure. Nearing the August elections, Zagreb's DU government charged six journalists with "disseminating false [antigovernment] information" and also revived a "verbal offenses" clause in an old penal code.

* In Slovakia, separatist nationalists have exploited their June election victory to declare independence and force the breakup of the Czechoslovak federation, even though polls still show most Slovaks prefer union. Muzzling the press and broadcasting was part of the process.

The Slovak premier, former Communist Vladimir Meciar, now has virtually complete control of the information network. He has held secret news conferences for approved journalists and issued veiled vendettas against press critics.

Things are better in Prague where - as in Warsaw and Budapest - major newspapers were privatized to sink or swim in the new free market.

Not every impediment to a free press is financial. Touchy governments and journalists are both frequently at fault. Many of the latter are understandably inexperienced in serious journalism and have an emotional, over-politicized, partisan approach. The professional, factual reporting especially needed in this difficult transition to democracy is lacking.

With time, however, governments may learn not to be over-sensitive; journalists to be more objective observers.

The founder of one of Britain's great newspapers said it all: "Facts are sacred, comment is free."

That remark should be posted in every newsroom in the former communist world.

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