Taste of freedom for Russia's press

Click to follow
IN THE last years of the Soviet Union no institution did more to promote the ideals of democracy and the market economy than the media. Today, the second anniversary of the start of Russia's 'August revolution' allows us the luxury of looking back and asking whether the noble dreams we had then have come true. How have the Russian media done since democracy and the market dawned?

The first key event was the removal of subsidies from the prices of newspapers and magazines on 2 January 1992. I was then deputy editor of Mezhdunarodnaya Zhizn/International Affairs, a prestigious bi-lingual monthly magazine in Moscow, and remember how for two or three months after that we received notices that we dubbed 'death warrants'. The price of newsprint, the costs of printing, distribution, rent, heating and everything else rocketed. After these first few months living under this sword of Damocles lost its excitement, but the situation has not improved. Prices are still sky high, and rising. In March 1993, for instance, it cost us318,000 roubles to print that month's English edition; in May it was 840,000 roubles, and in July - 1,900,000.

The highbrow and idealistic Russian journalists responded with miracles of ingenuity. They organised joint ventures with foreign companies, diversified into broadcasting, set up brick-making factories, ran groups of stores, or lent money at colossal rates of interest. The more 'professional' newspapers went into information racketeering: that is, they published compromising material on politicians, companies or rich individuals - or they did not publish it, depending on what was paid or what services rendered.

Others have found their own survival methods. Mikhail Fedotov, Russia's Minister of Press and Information, disclosed recently that television journalists who got themselves on to the 'black payrolls' of private businesses made up to dollars 5,000 a month, while their honest colleagues received salaries in Russian roubles equivalent to dollars 22. The less fortunate among us improve our living standards by writing an occasional article for the foreign press, or selling information to the foreign media, or, at the bottom end of the market, hope that bricks sell well.

However inventive we were, however, the ingenuity of those of us in the media still had nothing on that of the people who set prices and levied taxes. Most of us were left with no other choice but to deal with the devil: in other words, to seek support from the state.

At the beginning of 1992 President Boris Yeltsin decided to allocate subsidies to his favourite newspapers. For the sake of balance, Pravda was given a subsidy, too. 'And why not?' I remember thinking to myself. 'Are we not all loyal servants of democracy?' It seems that the same thought occurred simultaneously to hundreds of editors and soon a thousand publications had applied for - and around 300 began to receive - their share of state subsidies.

At first it did not look like a deal with the devil. The problems began when the new democratic establishment started to split. Then, those editors whose contacts were more with members of parliament than with the president's team (or vice versa) found themselves on a hook, beholden to one side or the other.

According to a report on the manipulation of mass media prepared for the European Institute for the Media, by the end of last year the existing power structures in Russia were between them exerting influence over 80 per cent of the visual information, 30 per cent of the audio information and 50-60 per cent of printed information.

The opposing camps, of course, play the manipulation game differently. The full parliament (Congress of People's Deputies) and the standing parliament (Supreme Soviet) behave in a way characteristic of Brezhnev-style communism, when stating an intention was more important than achieving a result. Apart from dispatching the police to regain control of Izvestia (unsuccessfully) and periodically demanding more air time on the Russian television and radio station (which they formally helped to found), they have done no more than pass angry resolutions on the media.

The executive branch of government, by contrast, turned out to be a no-nonsense manipulator. It compiled documents, conspiratorially referred to as Programmes X, that specified where direct administrative influence should be applied, set out which channels 'white', 'grey' and 'black' propaganda should be disseminated through, and envisaged the establishment of special electronic mail links to 'friendly' journalists. The report for the European Institute for the Media identified up to four groups conducting regular analysis of the tone and political line of the main media organisations, and two groups monitoring the policies of the local media. The results were fed to the government bodies responsible for allocating state subsidies to the media.

At the end of last year, hot on the heels of the compromise reached between the President and the chairman of Parliament, Boris Yeltsin set up the Federal Information Centre of Russia and gave it the power to oversee all the main media organisations - the Ostankino Television and Radio Company, the Russia Federal Television and Radio service, Radio Russia, 89 regional broadcasting companies, and the main news agencies: Tass and the Russian Information Agency. Mikhail Poltoranin, a close associate of the President, was put in charge of this monster, and Vyacheslav Bragin, chairman of the parliamentary committee on the mass media was appointed chairman of Ostankino television. Both nurtured a deep personal hatred towards the chairman of parliament, Ruslan Khasbulatov - and the feeling was mutual.

Soon afterwards individuals who tried to preserve a degree of objectivity by balancing their coverage of the two branches of power were ousted. Thus was the stage set for referendum last April. Is it any wonder that even the staunchly pro-Yeltsin Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe has admitted that 'on the eve of the referendum . . . radio and television largely propagated the positions of the President and his supporters.'

A whole host of journalists and intellectuals took part in the referendum campaign and proved extremely effective. Ironically, though, the mere scale of the propaganda effort and its overwhelming success caused quite a few journalists and editors to have second thoughts about what they were doing.

Now there is a lot of soul-searching in the Russian media. What is emerging can be described as a spirit of 'a plague on both your houses'. Perhaps this is finally a prelude to objective reporting.

'We decided there should be no more taking sides,' I was told recently by Len Karpinski, editor of the multi-language Moscow News, former dissident and veteran campaigner for democratic causes. 'And we feel much better.'

The author is head of the East-West Co-operation Programme of the European Institute for the Media in Dusseldorf, Germany.