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Former U.S.S.R.: Analysis From Washington: Trends In Post-Communist Media

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 30 December 1996 (RFE/RL) - The collapse of print media in many post-communist countries, the growing importance of electronic media there, and the increasing corporate control of both threaten the democratic transformation of these societies.

The collapse of newspapers and magazines in these countries since the end of communist rule is striking. It reflects the end of state subsidies to many of these publications, the rudimentary nature of commercial advertising in many places, and the inability of these publications to recover costs from subscriptions and other sales.

As a result, the dramatic flowering of new publications immediately after the fall of communist censorship has withered, with many of the new and independent papers and magazines closing their doors after only a few issues.

And even the old powerhouses have suffered as a result of these changes. Moscow's "Izvestiya" newspaper, for example, has seen its print runs fall from 12.5 million copies daily in 1990 to only 600,000 copies now, a decline of 95 percent.

The only exceptions to this pattern are new publications directed at a particular niche in society not served by the mainstream press, and all too many older publications, especially in the provinces, that continue to receive subsidies from governments and to be controlled by them.

This collapse of the print media has been accompanied by the rise in the importance of radio and television. While this shift is part of a worldwide phenomenon, it has a special and negative impact in this region because of the legacy of communism.

In most of post-communist countries, television and to a lesser extent radio were established as state monopolies and largely remain so. As a result, they continue to be subject to state influence if not outright control. And this is true even where state control of the print media is largely gone.

One country where that pattern holds is Belarus. There, those few who can find and afford to purchase a newspaper can indeed obtain a variety of information and points of view, but the vast majority of Belarusians, who must rely on state-controlled electronic media, have access to a significantly narrower one.

This distinction means that countries whose print media may make them appear relatively free to an outside observer are in fact anything but. And it means that many in these countries must continue to rely on international broadcasting.

And accompanying these two changes is a third: the increasing corporate control of the media both print and electronic. Large firms, such as Russia's natural gas monopoly Gazprom and its oil giant Lukoil, have been buying large stakes in major media outlets. Earlier this month, for example, Lukoil bought a 20 percent share of "Izvestiya."

At one level, this development too is part of worldwide trend. But in these countries, it has three especially negative consequences.

First, the new corporate owners often view their media acquisitions as mouthpieces rather than investments or a mark of status.

Given the dependence of these owners on government policy, they often demand that their newspapers and television stations tow a pro-government line every bit as tough as the old party line.

That is what happened in Russia during the presidential elections last spring and summer, a development that dismayed many Russian democrats and, polls suggest, undermined public support for private ownership of the media.

Second, journalists and editors lack both the tradition of independence and the opportunities for alternative employment that provide the basis for more objective reporting even in a media outlet owned by a powerful corporation.

And third, the inability of many media outlets to earn their way from the sale of advertising or subscriptions makes them far more dependent on corporate owners than is typically the case in most Western countries.

Many of these problems, of course, are simply the growing pains of a new media environment, but their impact on the political health of these countries should not be underestimated.

Indeed, "Izvestiya's" editor-in-chief Igor Gombiovskiy is almost certainly right when he echoes the author of the American Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, on the importance of a free media for a free society:

In a comment about recent developments in Russia, Gombiovskiy observed that if the Russian media lose their independence, "all hope for progress in a democratic society can be buried with it."