Please, Mr Chancellor, why don't you . . .: Foreign Interests: We must monitor the media in Moscow

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The Independent Online
THE journal Index on Censorship proposes that the Government should help to fund a monitoring project on the Russian media.

Britain, along with most of the Western world, has staked its all on the survival of President Boris Yeltsin. Rather than risk Russia collapsing into civil war and the prospect of 10 million refugees streaming into Germany, John Major has endorsed Mr Yeltsin's increasingly dubious democratic credentials.

When glasnost was in its heyday the Russian press was in the vanguard of the new freedom to criticise the past. Journalists gained credibility as they broke ideological taboos and dismantled the propaganda apparatus.

Since the demise of the Soviet Union, however, they have failed to live up to public expectations as guardians of a new democratic culture. As publishing costs soared, the press increasingly came to depend on the financial support of parties and factions. It once more became partisan and readership plummeted.

State television, headed by the Yeltsin supporter Vyacheslav Bragin, began to replace the influence of the press. Even before the battle for the White House in October, television had become a mouthpiece of the government. Now both press and television are pandering to the President.

How serious is the West's concern for a genuinely democratic Russia? Can Mr Major's government live with the uncertainty that this will involve? Or does it prefer a stable policy with a clear direction in which its interests are secure - and of which its only knowledge is via a sycophantic media? Most Russians believe their country is not ready for the destabilising and subversive freedoms of a democratic culture. An authoritarian state, they say, is preferable to civil war. But is it in the interests of the West to support a 'democratic' Russia under authoritarian rule?

In 1992, Index on Censorship began to work with the Memorial Human Rights Centre in Moscow. In November this year, Memorial protested against the closure by presidential decree of opposition newspapers, and against the clampdown on ethnic minorities. The West was slow to recognise the part played by the media in fomenting the ethnic and nationalist strife that plunged former Yugoslavia into war. Given the Russian Federation's complexity, the potential for civil war dwarfs even the Bosnian debacle.

Index proposes that its link with Memorial be extended to a joint monitoring project for the December elections and the months that follow. Measuring media objectivity is more important now than ever.

Ursula Owen, editor of 'Index on Censorship'.