WITH the stroke of a pen President Boris Yeltsin established a federal agency to oversee the Russian media. And now he's crossing swords with a wide array of politicians and journalists, who accuse him of trying to stifle press freedom.
Mr. Yeltsin's decree "On The Federal Information Center (FIC) of Russia," signed Dec. 25, says the new agency will manage "coordination of state policy in the sphere of mass media."
It also empowers the FIC with the "dissemination of precise and truthful information about reforms in Russia and explanation of state policy of the Russian Federation."
It's the clause about "information dissemination" that most worries not only Yeltsin's political and ideological opponents, but even some of his democratic supporters. Many suspect Yeltsin of trying to use the decree to control the media and thus form public opinion in a way favorable to the president.
"What we have here is the recreation of [George] Orwell's Ministry of Truth," said Viktor Linnik, deputy editor of Pravda, the former Communist Party Daily. Mr. Linnik is referring to Orwell's "1984."
"It's ironic," Linnik continued, "the current authorities are completely repeating the attitude and approaches toward the mass media of the former [Soviet communist] leadership."
Russian Parliament Speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov, a bitter political enemy of Yeltsin, and other lawmakers want to abolish the FIC, saying it violates constitutional guarantees against censorship. It looks unlikely, however, that Mr. Khasbulatov and others have the political muscle to make Yeltsin back down.
The president's supporters say fears of the FIC becoming a censorship tool are overblown. "If the center tried to exert influence or introduce censorship," said Mikhail Poltoranin, the FIC's chief, at a recent press luncheon, "it would be a violation of the law ... and the mass media could turn to the courts to stop it."
According to Mr. Poltoranin, the FIC currently has about 90 full-time employees. In addition to dissemination of government information, the center has departments responsible for analysis and forecasting, fostering informational links with state bodies and political organizations in Russia, and expanding media ties with other nations in the Commonwealth of Independent States.
But the FIC's most important task, Poltoranin says, is easing the financial difficulties of newspapers and broadcast outlets. Almost all have been unable to secure enough independent financing under Russia's new economic conditions, and so they remain dependent on the government for subsidies.
Poltoranin said the government would continue subsidies in 1993, but added that the FIC aimed to help wean newspapers and broadcast media from the state. The first stage envisages the transformation of newspapers and broadcast outlets into joint-stock companies. Eventually, he added, the Russian media should form a consortium to attract and administer investment.
Despite his apparent altruistic intentions, even some prominent pro-reform journalists - especially Vitaly Tretyakov, editor of the liberal Nezavisimaya Gazeta daily - are saying "thanks, but no thanks" to Poltoranin.
Mr. Tretyakov is suspicious that the FIC may try to manipulate purse-strings to influence news coverage. There's also the fear of retaliation if a certain paper declines to publish information being "disseminated" by the FIC.
In an attempt to counter possible pressure from the FIC, Tretyakov announced in late January the formation of an alternative body, The Free Press Foundation. The foundation, which is outside government control, also seeks to attract investment that would keep the media afloat. The project has the support of such political luminaries as former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and former acting Russian Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar.
Historically, political power in Russia and the former Soviet Union has gone to those who controlled the media. The Communist Party, for example, relied heavily on the media to maintain its hold over the Soviet empire for nearly 73 years.
Following the failed putsch attempt in August 1991, which led to the breakup of the Soviet Union, Yeltsin sought to break the pattern of the media being a government mouthpiece.
But now Yeltsin is facing what could be the crucial political test of his presidency - the April 11 referendum on a new Russian constitution. The referendum is likely to decide whether Russia should be a presidential or a parliamentary republic.
Many critics say the timing of the FIC's creation is not accidental: Its immediate goal, they charge, is to orchestrate a presidential victory in the referendum. They add that a recent Yeltsin decree reorganizing Russian television is also intended to boost the president's chances.
"The tactical aim [of Yeltsin's actions] is brainwashing the population through heavy propaganda for the April 11 referendum," said Pravda editor Linnik. "The strategic aim is to block the opposition from having an outlet to the mass media."