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Russian media at risk in election.

Several memorable dates mark the birth and development of the free Russian press. At a meeting of the Communist Party Central Committee in March 1985, Mikhail Giorbachev took power as general secretary of the ruling party and leader of the Soviet Union. The new party czar, strikingly different from his predeccessors with his lively clemeanor and ability to talk on his feet, launched the following month his new national program defined by the words, glasnost" ancl iperestroika."

Perestroika was well understood--it translates as "reconstruction"--and it led to reforming the failed, centrally planned economy. Buti "glasnost" could not be translated into any foreign language and had a mysterious tone in Russian. By June 1990, when the new Law on the freedom of the Press was approved, and in August, when official censorship was cnded, it became clear: glasnost meant freedom of the press.

We soon learned two important lessons from this new freedom. While we were free to report and publish as we wished, we were also free to fail in economic terms. In August 1991, during the brief but frightening attempted coup against Ciorbachev, we discovered that we could quickly lose our legal freedom. Thus, it was August 1991 that proved to be the true birthday of Russian press freedom. We knew then that we could challenge repressive power and defend social and press freedom as well.

Now, five years later, the June presidential election presents the Russian press with a new challenge as the Communist Party poses a serious threat to unseat Boris Yeltsin, who ended its controlling position in the country's political, social and cultural life. The election itself is an immense challenge to journalists, with several candidates registering in public opinion polls and "none of the above"--a ballot choice--drawing support of the electorate.

The election season offers a good opportunity to measure the changes that have taken place among the Russian media in five vears. There are three clear trends: home television has become the main supplier of news and entertainment for most people; the daily circulation of all periodicals has fallen from some 96 million copies in 1990 to an estimated 8 million in 1994; and the position of the Moscow-based press has declined dramatically, with half of the reading population preferring local papers.

The contemporary media zoo includes all kinds of publications, including fascist and monarchist leaflets, communist and independent private papers and magazines. Compared with the seven decades when all public media were controlled by the central government and Communist Party, the scene is still bewildering to many.

Local publishers of Argumenti and Fakti and Kommersant have successfully aimed their publications at the emerging middle class and the new Russians." Most, a major local financial house, developed the new, successful daily Sevodaya that appeals to similar readers. Most is also the major investor in independent television (NTV) and controls Radio Echo, one of the most important of a dozen independent new radio outlets.

There has been little foreign investment in Russian media except for The Moscow Times, created with money from the Netherlands and aimed at foreigners, and the Russian editions of Penthouse and Playboy. The popular German magazine, Bunte Illustrierte, reportedly financed the revamped Ogonyok, a magazine aimed at housewives.

Radio Echo, Ogonyok and The Moscow News, a one-time propaganda sheet now owned by its staff and published in English and Russian, have special standing because they were pioneers in developing the era of glasnost and kept their independence during the abortive coup against Gorbachev.

The Russian non-communist press, more and more clearly, falls into two categories: quality and popular. This does not mean that the quality papers are elitist and the others shallow. It does mean that popular periodicals pursue commercial success more openly, which dictates changes in their content. Naturally the degrees of depth and impartiality is different in these two categories It is much more difficult to mistake an observer's opinion for information about events in quality periodicals.

According to a poll conducted among journalists by the Moscow Press Center and the foreign journalists club. Izvestia. once the afternoon mouthpiece of the Subject government and now privately owned with a circulation of 700,000, was rated the best newspaper. Then came Moscow News (150,000), a weekly. and Nezavisimaya Gazeta (50,000), a paper established with the beginning of glasnost.

Oddly. Nezavisimaya Gazeta (Independent Gazette), which is filled with a wide assortment of opinion articles, was unanimously praised by foreign journalists for its "pluralism and independence" while Russian journalists were unanimously skeptical about its "omnivorous character and exhibitionism." Among magazines, the weekly Novoe Vremya (25,000) was the clear winner.

Another class of publications has scored great success with the mass audience. The weekly Argumenti i Fakti claims a circulation of 3.5 million in various editions. MK, previously Moskovskv Komsomolets, a daily paper for young Communists, reaches 1 million customers with a mixture of sensationalism and scandal. Another daily aimed at young readers, Komsomolskaya Pravda, puts its audience at 1.5 million for its mixture of hot politics, big names, sex and scandal. All circulation figures are suspect since they are produced by the publications themselves.

The free press in Russia is developing in conditions that are far from favorable. Russia's political system is still far behind Western standards. The market resembles a flea-market much more than it does a social market system. The situation with the press is different. The radical transformation it has gone through has brought it closer to Western standards than the political and economic systems.

In communist times, the press was either an instrument of propaganda or, at best and in exceptional cases, an exercise in Aesopian language. The contemporaly Russian media compete in obtaining news, journalistic investigations, political analyses and criticism of the ruling authorities, as their Western colleagues do.

The government owns and operates a couple of newspapers, but their role in public life is negligible. The official government newspaper, Rossyskaya Gazeta (500,000 copies), is interesting only because it publishes authentic texts of new laws and decrees. The government-owned Itar-Tass, successor to Tass, is useful for hard news as well as for the official statements it carries. The service has improved greatly because of competition from foreign news agencies and Interfax, the invaluable, independent news service established with glasnost.

While opinions about the independent publications differ widely, there is one unquestioned fact. The role and position of each paper and magazine is determined not by its association with a particular power base but by its intimate ties with the reading public. This poses the question that challenges Russian journalists-what will be the impact of the presidential election, especially if the communist candidate, Gennady Zyuganov, wins on June 16?

Zyuganov likes to complain that all media, especially TV, are controlled by the present government. In fact, three leaders of the main channels including Igor Malashenko, head of independent NTV, are members of Yeltsin's campaign staff.

At the same time Zyuganov boasts that l 30 publications are mouthpieces of the Communist Party. Of course, this is far from its former omnipotence when Pravda was the national voice of the ruling party and had the income and circulation of 10 million copies. Pravda today claims a circulation of 250,000 while the more aggressive, "popular" Sovetskaya Rossiya has double that number and Zavtra, "the newspaper of spiritual opposition," claims 100,000.

Opposition communist-style has its own advantages including freedom from moral restrictions in the choice of means to use that freedom. The content of these papers is a bouquet of nostalgically communist, overtly nationalist and more importantly, militantly anti-liberal ideas and programs. In style, it is a Molotov cocktail of impertinent propaganda and new freedom of expression that manifests itself mainly in complete unceremoniousness with regard to opponents and facts. The communist press addresses exclusively those embittered and discontented and appeals to emotions and instincts rather than to reason.

The television scene is different. The main broadcasting channels are still state-owned, but the state, with its thin budget and exorbitant expenditures, is unable to finance them and must turn for support to private capital, which uses this leverage to impose control on these channels. In addition, the paradigm of total propaganda has long since been destroyed. The state-controlled TV, with its commercial influences, reflects a mixture of invisible private interests and heterogeneous political and creative perspectives. No one wants to appear to the TV audience like a simple mouthpiece of official ideas. This was especially true in coverage of the war in Chechnya.

More importantly, competition has appeared in the form of independent channels of which NTV offers the best news and entertainment programs.

Just over five years ago, the communist regime still seemed monolithic and strong as a granite rock. This was so as long as the press remained monolithic, controlled by the state and ruling party. However, as soon as two weeklies violated this inviolable rule, the system of propaganda began to collapse. Thus began the avalanche. Following Moscow News and Ogonyok, other periodicals joined the new and daring play: "Let's call things their names," apprehensively at first, but more and more resolutely afterwards. To begin with, facts of the remote past were published.

The paradoxwas that much had been known already in some way or other: the Great Terror, Stalin's purges, the deportation of peoples; the MolotovRibbentrop Pact; which country began the Korean War, what Soviet troops were doing in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968. But far from everything, and not to everybody. This was forbidden knowledge and it was to be concealed. Suddenly the mystery of mysteries began to be disclosed. You could read about it freely and discuss it with your neighbor without fear of being reported to the KGB.

Glasnost was the disclosure not of unknown, but of officially denied facts and events. A highly subversive thing, as it proved to be. It was strange under early glasnost when major news was information about what happened 70, 50 or 25 years ago. Nevertheless, in a closed society such publications produced an explosive effect: just to think what really took place in the world!

The press began to command great influence on people. It did not simply inform, it referred to people whose names had long been verboten, rehabilitated lost souls. It freed facts and thoughts that had been kept captive for decades. It liberated society's mentality. Nothing remained of communist mythology after five years. It was a revolution-or a counterrevolution-of consciousness. It was the result of glasnost, no matter what meaning its creators intended for this word.

Soon, the press discovered attractive aspects of pluralism and political struggle. It turned out that one could not only be an obedient servant of censorship, but also play an independent role. One could openly oppose Pravda and Soviet Russia, these strongholds of conservatism, discern nuances in the Politburo, ostracize communist diehards and even take the side of persecuted Yeltsin against the whole of the Politburo headed by Gorbachev. This was risky, but no longer deadly. And this paid back in unprecedented popularity for the press.

It was a remarkable romantic and heroic period in the life of Russian media. People had no more absorbing occupation than the reading of periodicals that cleared the Augean stables of filth and official lies. The circulation of democratic periodicals reached transcendental figures. The weekly Argumenti i Fakti, unheard of earlier, was mentioned by The Guinness Book of Records thanks to its circulation of 35 million copies at that time.

The tide of glasnost tugged along the cart of political democratization. In turn, the democratic process, which had gained momentum, ensured security of new journalism. The 1990 Law on Freedom of the Press, unprecedented in the history of a communist country, any party, movement, organization, group of people or individual could found a newspaper, a magazine or a radio station. The Communist Party lost its monopoly in the press and its power once and for all.

In Soviet times all periodicals were subordinated to certain official structures. Pravda was the bearer of the highest title: the mouthpiece of the Communist Party. Sovietskaya Rossia was another mouthpiece at a grade lower in the Soviet table. Izvestiya was the newspaper of the USSR Supreme Soviet; Trud, of the Trade Unions Central Committee; Literaturnaya Gazeta, the Writers' Union; Komsomolskaya Pravda, the Young Communist League, and so on.

trict hierarchy was observed even in relations between newspapers. Besides, all of them were under strict control by the Agitation and Propaganda Department of the CPSU, commonly known as Agitprop.

Under Gorbachev's law, each existing periodical and new publications had to register by January 1991, in a capacity defined by itself. Most periodicals broke the bureaucratic navel cord. We of The New Times weekly chose the formula: "Founders: New Times journalists." We did not want any bosses or patrons to control us, be it a party or a bank. We were confident that only such a formula would guarantee freedom

It proved correct juridically but not economically, as we came to understand from our own experience.

On August 19, 1991, all freedoms obtained through the new law were suspended by the revanchist coup mounted by old-line communist bureaucrats who realized they were losing power rapidly. I remember my own thought that morning: "This is the end." Many liberals admitted at the bottom of their hearts that totalitarianism was eternal in this country and that any experiments with freedom, all thaws and Prague Springs, were temporary phenomenons, that sooner or later the iron heel would restore its domination.

To begin with, the new regime restored censorship. After allowing a few conservative periodicals, it banned all the rest. It was the hour of the ultimate trial for the press, which had known the taste of freedom. What to do: demonstrate "realism" and return to the former slavish condition under the guidance of Agitprop? Or challenge the regime, call the putschists and usurpers their true names, risking personal freedom and, possibly, life itself?

The presence of tanks under the windows and memories of real communism made the choice. A decision had to be made in a matter of minutes and hours. The coup took place on Sunday night, an inconvenient time for our weekly, Novoe Vremya. Monday was the day when an issue was to be signed for printing. To the honor of our collective of journalists, there was not a vote in favor of "prudent" conformism.

A new edition was quickly prepared. It unmasked the communist junta under the heading: "They have staged a putsch, but their hands are trembling." The printing house obeyed the ban, refusing to print the issue. We then ran it off on a photo copier and distributed it in metro stations.

Being unable to get published, five newspapers of active democratic orientation prepared a joint extraordinary issue, had it printed in Leningrad, where censorship had not yet been re-imposed, and distributed in Moscow. After three days the putsch breathed its last breath. How. ever, even before that it became clear that freedom of the press had been born in this country and that it was irreversible.

Now, the adventure of subversive ideas and romanticism of barricades has been replaced by the routine of survival. Press freedom has turned from an ideal and a dream into an everyday life full of prosaic financial problems.

Under the old regime, the press lived in a gold cage like a captive bird. All expenses of a periodical were paid by those agencies it spoke for. The editor could be sacked for publishing an article that was not liked "up there." A journalist could be kicked out and his name could be entered in a black list, and no court of justice would help him. But no newspaper or magazine could fail to come out in time-this would have been violation of "order."

Now, all periodicals have to be selfsupporting. Money becomes the incessant headache of editors. Freedom of the press turned out to be not only freedom to live, but also freedom to die, a not very inspiring discovery.

The disintegration of the USSR meant, for Moscow-based periodicals, the loss of gigantic readership territories: the Ukraine, the Baltic states, Central Asia, Transcaucasia. The postal service proved unable to deliver parcels in time but still demanded sums exceeding subscription prices several times for its unreliable services. Crisis also struck the retail market of periodicals. Newspaper booths disappeared at once, changing to trade in alcohol, a product which was much more profitable and, possibly, more necessaryto the masses.

The post-Soviet press discovered that it must generate its income from advertising? but for this source to become stable and abundant the economy must be stable and prosperous too.

A whole sea of new, overtly apolitical periodicals, informational, entertaining and pornographic? came into being. Editors hurried to engage in the hitherto unknowrn source, business. They did not content themselves with marketing or commercial advertising. Trade in hidden advertising, the sale of influence. the making of profit from closeness to a branch of power-in a word, various wrays of recasting political capital into just capital became popular.

Journalism experienced the pressure of commercialization. Its consequences are libertinism, unceremoniousness, haste. As an editor has put it, "to be a success, a newspaper has to turn a bit yellow." The free press in Russia is developing under conditions that will remain unfavorable at least until the presidential election.

If the Communists lose the election, the course of events will be a more or less natural continuation of the present situation, promising no special surprises. If the Communists win, two outcomes seem the most probable.

Pessimists are positive that the new communist regime would be extremely aggressive in conformity with its doctrinal purposes and inherent instincts. If such be the case, freedom of the press would certainly be its first victim. Optimists believe the Communist president, having been challenged by real responsibility, will abandon his ideological weaponry quickly and conduct the same social and economic policy, with some amendments, as the present President.

I believe that this is an overly optimistic prognosis. Nevertheless, it is free press that is the main guarantor that communist revanchists may fail to implement their intentions. As long as it exists, society will not remain silent, obedient and thoughtless. The latter is the only condition on which communism is at all possible.

Alexander Pumpyansky is Editor-in-Chief of the weekly New Times and Russian Co-Editor of World Paper. He is a member of the board of the International Press Institute. Earlier he worked in Komsomolskaya Pravda and Moscow News. He is a graduate of the Institute of International Relations (Moscow) and is the author of a number of books and scripts of documentary films. In 1995 the Association of the Foreign Press and the Journalists Club of Moscow named New Times the best Russian magazine.
COPYRIGHT 1996 Harvard University, Nieman Foundation
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Title Annotation:The Eastern European Media: A Survey of the Press in the Former Soviet Union
Author:Pumpyansky, Alexander
Publication:Nieman Reports
Date:Jun 22, 1996
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