Broadcasting, Press Play Vital Roles in New Russia Western Support for the Russian Media Could Strengthen Democracy

Article excerpt

THE first line of defense for democracy in Russia is its media. In the power struggle between President Boris Yeltsin, the Congress, and the Constitutional Court, Russia's fourth estate may well play the pivotal role in maintaining a peaceful transition to civil society. Despite numerous attempts by Speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov and President Yeltsin to control it, the mass media in Russia remains relatively impartial.

While Russia's two state broadcasting companies have tended to favor Yeltsin in their reporting, the Russian people receive a fairly accurate representation of the political developments in the country. So long as all ethnic and political groups continue to have access to the news media, civil war can be avoided.

In Serbia, President Slobodan Milosevic has mastered the use of TV the way Hitler had earlier exploited the power of radio to incite fear and hatred of his enemies.

With 65 million former Soviet citizens living outside the boundaries of their national homelands, Russia cannot afford to let the media fall into the hands of any single political faction. In the current crisis of authority, levelheaded leaders from all factions should join in defending the independence of the mass media.

In the political climate that prevails in Moscow, partisan claims to control state television are rampant. Extremists from all sides will attack the state broadcasting centers, as we saw in Vilnius, in Tbilisi, in Bucharest and elsewhere. Unlike in the West, in Russia there is no tradition of press freedoms to insulate the media from this political maelstrom.

Russian television reaches 95 percent of households and is by far the main source of news in the country. The West should help with financial support to reform and improve this information channel. Aid for the media should be offered with the same conditionality that comes with financial support. Freedom of the press, guarantees for media pluralism and independence of the electronic media from partisan politics should be the price of American aid for democratization.

United States policy should stress broadcast pluralism as strongly as we do any other human right. After all, no other human right can be protected if the media is censored. Multichannel television is as important to modern democracy as multiparty elections. Western support for the Russian media could have an immediate impact in strengthening democracy, whereas financial assistance appears to average citizens to be lost in a black hole. No conceivable amount of Western economic aid can rescue Russia's crumbling economy.

Three hundred billion dollars in economic assistance from Germany for the former East German Democratic Republic has not been enough to integrate that homogeneous state; and Russia's needs swamp those of East Germany.

But Western help for the Russian media could effectively bolster the fourth estate to defend its role above the political struggle. …

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