Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Brutal Jolt to Russia's March toward Press Freedom

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Brutal Jolt to Russia's March toward Press Freedom

Article excerpt

It happened nearly two months ago, but people, not just the news fraternity, are still talking about President Boris Yeltsin's brutal jolt to his country's march toward free-press journalism.

Just hours after he firebombed his Parliament into submission, he shut down 15 newspapers that he considered unfriendly; he even sent censors into composing rooms to kill stories as they were being set in type.

So much for Russia's fleshly minted Law on the Press, which scores of Western lawyers had spent so much time helping to draft. The law carried more-than-ample court procedures for dealing with press irresponsibility, but Yeltsin ignored them.

His precipitous behavior has been a disappointment; it's had a chilling effect to say the least. But, he's still the only game in town.

Another shocker still mentioned by Moscow press junkies is that CNN was the only TV channel that carried live coverage of that disquieting night. Russian TV either ignored the shootout or gave it a one-sentence brush-off. Was the silence because of inertia or fear of reprisal?

I just completed an on-site visit with the media in Moscow; Kiev, Ukraine; Minsk, Belarus; and Warsaw, Poland. It leaves your head spinning.

Except in Poland, the move to press independence is inching ahead ever so slowly. At the root of all enterprises, it seems, is the effect of inflation.

To U.S. journalists, the press scene in the former Soviet Union is rough, ragged and unstable. One thinks of the pamphleteer press of our birthing days. Moscow is a frontier boomtown economy. New publications spring up weekly and disappear almost as frequently. Corruption in the work place is rampant, streets are gridlocked. The big money is in the hands of the 24- to 25-year-old entrepreneurs.

Yet, there is a sense of energy, hustle and competitiveness in the media that feels good. New York (population 7 million) has four major dailies. Moscow (population 9 million) has at least 10 mass- circulation dailies. Television is booming. Even free shoppers are popping up everywhere and, as in the United States, scaring the wits out of ad-scarce mainstream publishers.

Except for the hustling managers of the shoppers, too many editors and publishers continue to find slightly alien the concept of financing a paper through advertising.

Nevertheless, an advertising base is building. Supply of newsprint is not. For many, it goes against the grain to use precious newsprint for advertising copy. …

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