State Manipulation Disrupts Free Media In Eastern Europe

THE December elections in Russia and rump Yugoslavia point not just to the political difficulties each country faces but the continuing problems of their media three years after the collapse of communist rule in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

In each case, a mostly free press has been established. Censorship, officially, no longer exits. But in too many formerly communist countries, the press - above all television - remains subject to both overt and covert pressures from governments as reluctant as their predecessors to tolerate - let alone welcome, as truly democratic government should - dissent and criticism.

Official commitment to democracy in these countries does not yet automatically include accommodation of open opposition. Too often, official reactions to critics remind one of former communist attitudes. Access to newsprint and distribution networks - in most cases still state-controlled - are blocked, and individual journalists are harassed.

This month's Russian and Serbian polls, Dec. 12 and 19 respectively, were television elections. In the former, opposition groups were well screened. In the latter, TV was so monopolized by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic's Socialist (Ex-Communist) Party that even the relatively few open-minded Serbs scoffed at ``Slobovision.''

Serbia, generally, is the worse offender. Beside emasculating critical Serb news media, the regime has ruthlessly suppressed both the Hungarian minority press in northern Serbia and that of the 90 percent Albanian population in Kosovo in the south.

But similar pressures confront the media in other former Yugoslav republics. Since independence in 1991, the Croatian government has closed leading newspapers and magazines that were unequivocally critical of its policies.

In Slovakia, the same kind of nationalist leadership has set up its own Club of Journalists ``For a Truthful Picture of Slovakia.'' The government is the self-appointed sole arbiter of that ``truth'' and has cracked down hard on journalists and media with differing ideas.

Conditions elsewhere in Eastern Europe are better, generally, but are still ambivalent on central issues of the media. In Poland, a law says the media must observe ``Christian values'' but in its wider, generic term that would seem less onerous.

Across the region, faults and deficiencies exist on both sides. Unstable and unsure governments are still unversed in democratic practice. Journalists lack experience in responsible, unslanted journalism. From Tirana to Moscow, so-called independent periodicals have multiplied like mushrooms. But most are pro-government or tied to political parties. None is genuinely independent.

Where privatization of the press has occurred, it has resulted too often in the worst tabloid or pornographic forms. Foreign investment in the printed media raises questions of excessive outside control.

Western investors are estimated, in fact, to account for up to 80 percent of the capital assets of the Hungarian press. Poland, however, now limits outside investment to 35 percent.

Even in countries that have legislated a measure of independence for their media, who really runs broadcasting - TV especially - remains a hotly contested issue. Even the more democraticized governments - Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and even Bulgaria - are loath to relinquish a strong hold.

It ultimately must come back to the principal difficulty confronting all these infant states - their economies.

This column has previously discussed the East's preference for ``trade, not aid'' - access to markets, not handouts - with the West. From Russia to Albania, democracy and press freedom - as well as responsibility - will more quickly mature as these countries are helped over their severest economic hurdles.

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