RUSSIAN President Boris Yeltsin is making the same mistake that his predecessor Mikhail Gorbachev made when he tried to take back control of the free media he helped unleash. By summarily firing Yegor Yakovlev, the director of the Russian state television company, because of his objective coverage of ethnic conflict in Russia, Mr. Yeltsin plays into the hands of his enemies.
Much attention was paid in the West when Yeltsin banned the rightist National Salvation Front, but few alarms were raised last month when he also abolished the St. Petersburg Television Company after his hand-picked general director went over to the side of the nationalists.
Yeltsin's chilling suppression, first of St. Petersburg Television and now of Central TV, is part of a struggle for power with the forces aligned against reform. In the end, though, only democracy can lose. A few weeks before, when the popular paper Izvestia criticized Yeltsin's rival, Parliamentary Speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov, the outraged Mr. Khasbulatov put through a resolution taking over direct control of the paper. Yeltsin thereupon signed a decree overruling his parliamentary foe.
Undaunted, Khasbulatov sent his private militia to surround the publishing house. The president struck back by dismantling the speaker's militia. This struggle over the media must end if Russia is to have any chance of transforming itself into a modern democratic state. Television in particular has been on the front line in the battle for democracy throughout the former Soviet empire. In Georgia, supporters of ousted President Gamsakurdia have twice launched coup attempts with armed attacks on the govern ment's TV studios. In Romania, the revolution against Nicolae Ceaucescu was fought over the broadcasting center. In Vilnius, Soviet Black Beret troops attempted to overthrow the newly independent state, not by attacking the parliament but by battling for control of the TV tower.
Control over television remains a critically divisive issue in Hungary and is a daunting question in the division of Czechoslovakia. It has been a principal demand of protesters in Belgrade, where President Slobodan Milosevic has turned the state television monopoly into a proto-fascist propaganda tool.
United States Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleberger and Congressman Lee Hamilton (D) of Indiana recently won an exemption to the UN Security Council embargo on Yugoslavia to allow shipping of much-needed television gear to equip an alternative channel to Mr. Milosevic's state TV. This kind of support for independent broadcasters could be decisive in the transformation of communism in the area. The development of democratic institutions throughout Central and Eastern Europe will depend largely on the ab ility to pass and enforce broadcasting laws which protect the media from the whims of government leaders.
AMERICAN leadership is crucial. Throughout the cold war, US public diplomacy and information policy was based on reversing the propagandizing of communist ideology. Anti-communist broadcasts were beamed across the Iron Curtain. But these counter-propaganda programs are no longer appropriate. A wholly new framework for American public diplomacy is called for, a policy that supports the existence of independent media as a basic human right.
The end of the cold war has forced a reevaluation of US strategic policy. But no such reappraisal has yet been forthcoming for US information policies. The new administration will have the opportunity to shift priorities from the proselytizing of American values to support for independent and objective news reporting in countries throughout the world. Media pluralism should be a condition of US foreign aid and a standard for certification as a member of the club of democratic nations, just as respect for
individual human rights has been.
Institutions like the US Information Agency and Radio Free Europe should concentrate on the promotion of independent media in the countries in which they operate. Legal and technical aid should be given to help emerging democracies adopt laws and regulatory structures that will guarantee fair access to the media.