Media 'balance of bias' totters

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The Independent Online
ONCE again in Moscow, as during the August 1991 coup, the time has come to choose sides. Igor Golembiovsky, editor-in-chief of Izvestia, already has. And he is in no doubt about what will happen if Boris Yeltsin loses.

'There will be a different editor and a different staff,' he says, sitting in what, for now at least, is still his office, a plush suite in the Izvestia Building off Pushkin Square. 'It will be an entirely different newspaper.'

His predecessor, Nikolai Yefimov, faced a similar choice in August 1991. He made the wrong one, siding with the coup plotters. Staff mutinied and refused to print putsch decrees. On the day the coup fizzled, he got the boot. He had, ruled the editorial board, 'violated the readers' interests'.

Mr Golembiovsky has taken a different stand. Under his stewardship, Izvestia has become one of Mr Yeltsin's keenest - and most respected - champions. While far from being an uncritical cheerleader, it has aligned itself firmly with the President in his battle against Ruslan Khasbulatov, the parliamentary chairman. 'Khasbulatov's only goal is to preserve his own power today and gain as much power as he can for tomorrow,' says the editor, chain-smoking and looking haggard. The Russian media has become a hotly disputed battle ground, fought over each day by the President and his parliamentary foes.

The Congress of People's Deputies and the Supreme Soviet may be more democratic than the Communist Party but, says Mr Golembiovsky, it is a difference of degree: 'Before everyone raised their hands, now there are 200 or so out of 1,000 who don't'

Until the 1991 coup, Izvestia was controlled by the Soviet parliament, whose chairman, Anatoly Lukyanov, would call each day with instructions on a special line to the editor's office. The phone is still there beside Mr Golembiovsky's desk. The Soviet parliament, though, has gone; Mr Lukyanov is awaiting trial for treason; Izvestia is owned by its staff.

Last October, in his first push for power, Mr Khasbulatov tried to renew the paper's connections with parliament. Backed by his own paramilitary guard, he flirted with taking Izvestia by force. But Mr Yeltsin disbanded parliament's 5,000-strong militia. Mr Khasbulatov backed down and appealed to the courts instead.

Skirmishing over the media has become open war. At the last session of the Congress two weeks ago, deputies demanded control of the Ostankino television station and the national news agency, Itar-Tass. The motion never came to a vote but parliament's intentions were clear.

Mr Yeltsin has made no direct attempt to muzzle the press. He has stirred concern, though, by ordering the Interior Ministry to 'protect' newspaper offices and television studios. If he intended to bully critics into silence, though, Mr Yeltsin has failed: they still savage him daily.

Yesterday, a popular Russian television presenter renowned for his extreme nationalist views was sacked. Officials said police prevented Alexander Nevzorov from entering television studios an hour before his 10- minute news programme 600 Seconds was to be broadcast. The programme went on air, but in contrast to Nevzorov's caustic conservative politics, it supported President Yeltsin.

Neither side has much time for a truly independent media: everyone must choose a side. The line-up is clear. Izvestia and Nezavisimaya Gazeta back Mr Yeltsin. Pravda and Sovietskaya Rossiya back parliament. Ostankino television reports to the Kremlin. Rossiya television reports to parliament. What makes the current crisis so dangerous though, is that the balance of bias could collapse.