Magazine article Editor & Publisher

The Year of Press Law Debates; Much Talk, Little Progress as Officials and Journalists in Eurasia and Eastern Europe Try to Define Press Freedom

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

The Year of Press Law Debates; Much Talk, Little Progress as Officials and Journalists in Eurasia and Eastern Europe Try to Define Press Freedom

Article excerpt

Much talk, little progress as officials and journalists in Eurasia and Eastern Europe try to define press freedom

IT WAS A year to debate press laws.

Officials and journalists in Eurasia and Eastern Europe spent much of 1992 defining press freedom, a stupendous task where the rule of law has not existed for generations.

Progress, of course, was slow. Overly defining freedom invited new restrictions. Nascent market economies, moreover, barely sustained competitive news media. Formal censorship ended, but many former communist journalists remained; others wrote polemics, not factual reports.

Worldwide, partial press freedom increased in many formerly authoritarian countries, though the percentage of free-press nations dropped slightly.

In the somewhat freer political climate, however, 82 journalists were murdered or killed on dangerous assignments, the most deaths recorded in one year.

Fifteen of 27 states in the former Soviet empire drafted laws to convert communist-style press monopolies into freer media operating in a market economy.

Independent, diversified journalism functions in only four of these countries, Czechoslovakia (before the split), Hungary, Mongolia, and Romania. Fifteen erstwhile Soviet-dominated states have partly free news media; in eight, press systems are not free.

Most accept in theory a diverse press mildly critical of government.. Yet press freedom in all 27 countries is increasingly threatened by national economies unable to sustain competitive media, and journalists tied to the new party or government.

The plight of mass media in the former Soviet empire was described in September by the deputy editor of Moscow News. He saw the end of newspapers. Readers, he said, will become solely television viewers because of inflated prices.

Yet, he concluded, "I do not doubt that, even with the total absence of the press, the Ministry of the Press will thrive, and the Parliament will produce resolutions of support and rights of mass media."

The debate over press laws would go on. Models for such debates were drawn from Moscow (1990) and Geneva (1992) with just a passing nod to Philadelphia (1791). In June 1990, the Supreme Soviet produced the U.S.S.R.'s first Law of the Press. The text covered 117 column-inches in Izvestia. That law guaranteed an uncensored, freer flow of information under communism's glasnost. Yet the extraordinary detail, such as intricate licensing procedures, opened new loopholes for bureaucrats to influence the media.

After the demise of the U.S.S.R., a far briefer, more liberal Russian press law went into effect last February. Monopolies in the media are forbidden, but the Communist Party's still-extensive holdings are not mentioned.

Since the Russian law omitted funding for censors, prior censorship is not only illegal but without structural support. Yet government bureaucrats still control newsprint allotments.

The American First Amendment, requiring complex checks and balances under judicial review, while observed abroad, was not a welcome import anywhere, even in Geneva at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. That body tried throughout 1992 to redefine -- in effect, modify -- the unrestricted guarantee of press freedom in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In the end, the commission postponed action.

The commission seeks to separate certain news-media rights from which no exceptions can be taken, even in a state of emergency, from those media rights which can be annulled even if there is no emergency.

The commission's report cites an earlier stipulation (Article 19, para. 3, Universal Declaration) that the exercise of press freedom "carries with it special duties and responsibilities."

Critics of Western journalism have argued that some legal structure must assure the press's compliance. This, said the commission, involves "the veracity and accuracy of information and the responsible formulation of an opinion. …

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