The Role of the Media in Transitions from Authoritarian Political Systems: Russia and Poland since the Fall of Communism

By Rogerson, Ken | East European Quarterly, September 1997 | Go to article overview

The Role of the Media in Transitions from Authoritarian Political Systems: Russia and Poland since the Fall of Communism


Rogerson, Ken, East European Quarterly


On March 1, 1995, Vladislav Listyev, a prominent Russian journalist was gunned down outside of his apartment in Moscow. What had transpired to make a journalist the target of such an act in a country where the mass media has traditionally been subordinate to the state? On the whole, specific journalists have not been singled out. The role of the media is changing. In Russia and Poland since the fall of communism, there is hesitancy to place the mass media in their former position as a mouthpiece for the government, but, on the other hand, there may be even greater hesitancy to give them the liberal freedom dictated by an increasingly democratic orientation.

What has the role of the mass media been in these transitions from authoritarian rule? What will it be in the future? The government institutions and leaders who have been placed in power have not reacted to the mass media consistently. These relationships have ranged from attempts at near complete, communist-like control to indifference and attempts to court the mass media for their own "public relations" purposes.

This article presents the results of a comparative study of Poland, from the fall of the communist government in 1990, and Russia, from the election of Boris Yeltsin in 1991, to the present. Utilizing research on media effects in society combined with the general theoretical framework suggested by transition theorists, I discuss the role of the media in forming governmental institutions, though not necessarily democratic ones. After a brief historical overview, I will examine some of the obstacles which the media will face in the future, such as economic problems, the pluralization and fragmentation of society, the rising emphasis on democratic-oriented journalism. Finally, I will propose possible roles (based on Harold Lasswell's classic work describing the social functions of communication(1)), which media systems could adopt in the future. The research will show that the media systems will not be able to choose these roles independently for there are numerous other factors which affect their function and even their existence.

The mass media, as well as other institutions and systems within these countries, are in a definitional period. As the institutions within the political, economic and social systems in these nations become more concrete, the mass media find a role within those systems. The opposite is also true. The mass media will take an active, dynamic role in shaping these institutions in order to find a place within them. There is never a complete consensus of the mass media's role because of the high degree of political, ideological and social differentiation in these countries. Yet the mainstream, elite mass media will begin to follow a general path which is acceptable (not necessarily in action, but in role) to themselves and the institutions around them.

Because of their past and probable future global importance, as well as their current instability, questions concerning Russia and Poland are crucial items on the international agenda. As the core of a former power in a bipolar system, Russia will, in the next few decades, attempt to regain its position economically and politically. The Cold War mind-set has not entirely faded and "Russia-watching" will continue. Poland also will assert itself as an example of how free market and democratic reforms might be beneficial to itself and the region. The mass media systems in both countries have the potential to help and hinder these processes, often simultaneously.

This study will be limited to the print media in the form of newspapers and magazines. Using sources of the media and current events, such as Editor and Publisher, Current Digest of the Post-Soviet Press, Radio Free Europe/radio Liberty daily bulletins (now the Open Media Research Institute), and The New York Times, among others, this research focuses on the media as a connecting - and often catalytic - factor between the political, economic and social institutions currently in the process of finding a place in Russian and Polish society. …

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