Out of Russia: It's party time for a free press

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The Independent Online
MOSCOW - Pravda has an ingenious line on the current court hearings into the activities of the former Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Once the party's mouthpiece, Pravda says the hearings are harming Russia's prestige in the eyes of 'progressive public opinion' throughout the world. Emerging democracies such as Russia should not be holding trials of political parties, says the paper.

The Constitutional Court is hearing evidence from Boris Yeltsin's lawyers that Mr Yeltsin was right to ban the party last year because it had behaved in an unconstitutional, even criminal, manner. If the court rules the party behaved illegally, Pravda says, all Communist parties in the world would also be condemned by Russia 'since all parties are essentially identical to the CPSU'.

This would be most unfortunate for Russia's foreign policy, it says. How, for example, would Moscow deal with China, or any country with a large Communist party?

Pravda did not ask Andrei Kozyrev, the Russian Foreign Minister, whether he thought Russia would lose diplomatic prestige from exposing the party's nefarious past. Such an inquiry would no doubt meet with a burst from Mr Kozyrev about Pravda's conservative friends in parliament who are trying to muzzle the press as the Communists did. If something is tarnishing Russia's image today, it is this effort by the MPs, says Mr Kozyrev. 'The world will not accept such an attempt to stifle freedom of speech.'

The conservative MPs are still a challenge to Mr Yeltsin and his reforms and sometimes he has to accommodate them; but on this matter he is firm. 'Any restrictions on glasnost or on freedom of the press are impermissible,' he says. 'Russia has lost too much because the media were in the pocket of the authorities . . . as President I shall do everything in my power not to allow a return to those times.'

That did not stop Ruslan Khasbulatov, the Speaker of the Parliament, and his hardline cronies from drawing up a resolution that would create an 'Observation Council' to oversee the media. This would be no press watchdog. Made up of MPs and party representatives, it would ensure that the new press laws are put into effect. The 'Observation Council' would 'give recommendations which must be fulfilled' to all state-run media.

In practice, that means Russia's two state television companies, and the newspaper, Rossiskaya Gazeta, the organ of the Supreme Soviet. But other newspapers, such as Izvestia, were once government-run, and still more were set up by government organisations. The independent newspaper, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, for example, was founded by the Moscow City Council. Hundreds of local papers were established by regional governments.

Yegor Yakolev, who runs the state television company, has no doubts about what the MPs intend. 'This resolution convinces me that the old ideology remains triumphant,' he told the former Communist youth paper, Komsomolskaya Pravda. 'We are running up against the clear desire of the parliament to put the press and television under its thumb.'

The most influential paper under attack is Izvestia, which, like most of the press, declared its independence after the failed coup last August. This week, with other newspapers and Russian television, Izvestia asked Mr Yeltsin to intervene. If the conservative MPs have their way, said the appeal, 'it could put such a tight bridle on the press, TV and radio, the likes of which journalists did not know even at the time of the all-powerful rule of the CPSU'.

The debate on the MPs' resolution, due this week, may be postponed until September. Russia's new independent editors have said that if the resolution is passed will take the matter to the Constitutional Court - where they may find the hearings on the 'old ideology' that insisted on total press censorship still going on.

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