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Analysis From Washington - Problems Of Post-Soviet Media

  • Paul Goble



Prague, 14 January 1997 (RFE/RL) - A meeting of journalists in Moscow at the end of last week called attention to three major problems which plague the media in most post-communist countries.

These include the absence of a consensus on the proper role of the media in society, the lack of balance between profits and professionalism, and the contrasting impact of the largely state-controlled electronic media and privately-owned newspapers.

On Friday and Saturday, more than 150 delegates of the 15,000 members of the Moscow journalistic community held their fourth congress to discuss the state of the media in post-Soviet Russia.

While they and the powerful Moscow politicians who spoke to them focused on the Russian scene, their debates and disagreements could have surfaced in virtually any of the countries that are seeking to escape their communist past.

First of all, the meeting highlighted sharp differences of opinion about the role that the media should be playing in social and political life.

Not surprisingly, most journalists argued that they should serve as society's watchdog of the political leadership, that government officials must respond to issues raised by the press, and that efforts to hold the press accountable are tantamount to censorship.

Government officials, on the other hand, suggested that the media were more interested in scandals than in social improvement and that the press ought to be calling attention to the good as well as the bad.

Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov's comments on this point were typical of the Russian politicians. He suggested that journalists have too many privileges and often wield their power regardless of any moral or legal standards.

And he said that the Russian media "concentrate on the negative and appear to gloat about whatever is painted all black or steeped in crime."

These divisions, although not unknown in countries with older democratic traditions, are especially acute in post-communist countries.

The journalists very much want to exploit their new if often undefined freedoms. Lacking serious traditions of independent journalism, many in the media see attacks on political leaders, even if inaccurate, as a validation of their special role.

On the other, the political elite, many of whom were part of the older communist leadership in the past, often appear to have an ill-concealed nostalgia for that era's controlled media, even as they profess themselves to be newly-minted democrats.

The journalists in these countries face a special challenge because of the new requirement that their publications make a profit.

Although the communist system controlled the press with a vengeance, the absence of the need to make a profit sometimes allowed for the development of higher professional standards than are occasionally seen in the post-communist media.

Sensationalism sells, even when responsible reporting does not. As the journalists were meeting in the Russian capital, for example, "Rossiiskiye vesti" featured an article entitled "Mutants Among Us."

It made the shocking but almost certainly incorrect prediction that over the next 80 years, the number of Russians in the world would decline by 50 percent.

And this article appeared even while more serious discussions of some of Russia's current political, economic and social problems did not.

Such examples of at least arguably unbalanced coverage could be multiplied many times. And few would disagree with one observer's suggestion that in this region at least the path from a controlled press to a free press passes through a yellow one.

Several comments reported from the Moscow meeting suggest that the situation is unlikely to improve soon.

Luzhkov explicitly said that journalists should be kept poor. And until a serious advertising industry develops, they will be except when they pander to the lowest common denominator in taste and judgment in the same way that tabloids have done all over the world.

The meeting took place as the greatest divide in post-communist journalism was very much in evidence, the divide between the state-controlled electronic media and the privately-owned print media.

In coverage of Russian President Boris Yeltsin's latest illness, the print media across the board raised disturbing questions about his future role.

One popular newspaper, "Moskovskiy komsomolets," asked "Who is leading us?" And then it provided a list of Yeltsin's earlier and still unkept promises.

But the state-controlled electronic media in sharp contrast played down Yeltsin's illness and its possible impact on the future. It featured reassuring suggestions that everything was basically fine and that the Russian president would soon be back at work.

Because of this, a free press is not necessarily the best possible indicator of a free media at least in terms of its potential audience.

In fact, as the Moscow meeting demonstrates, there appears to have been far less progress toward a free media in these countries than many in the West have self-confidently assumed.
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