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Russia: Analysis From Washington---'New Izvestiya' Attempts To Create AGenuine Free Press

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 3 November 1997 (RFE/RL - In many post-communist countries, the privatization of the media has simply transferred editorial control from the state to large financial concerns rather than created conditions for genuine freedom of the press.

And these large financial groups -- often banks but sometimes large industrial enterprises -- view their acquisitions in the media as tools for the advancement of their own, often narrow corporate goals rather than as a means for the dissemination of objective information.

Highlighting this problem is the case of Igor Golembioskiy, a crusading Moscow editor who sought unsuccessfully to swim against this tide at Izvestiya. He was fired from that paper for refusing to tow the corporate line of that paper's new owners. And he has now launched "New Izvestiya" to promote what he sees as genuinely free and independent journalism.

In the lead article of the first issue last week, Golembiovskiy said his newspaper hoped readers, that is, subscribers, would be willing to support such a venture. But in an implicit acknowledgment that such a hope may be misplaced, he has attracted the support of two banks, although he has insisted that they will not have a role in editorial policy.

If the past is any guide, both those banks and the corporate and political interests they represent are likely to intervene even here to limit the scope of even this newspaper's coverage of certain subjects. At the very least, many readers will assume that these banks are doing that at the New Izvestiya precisely because corporate interests are doing that almost everywhere else in Russia.

Golembiovskiy himself is very aware of that problem. In interviews with Western journalists, he has noted that no Western newspaper could survive if its readers assumed that they could not trust it to be genuinely objective about all subjects, something he said few newspapers in Russia could yet claim.

But if the media in Russia and other post-communist countries is to be free and not just privatized, what has to happen? There are at least three things, none of which is likely to prove easy or automatic.

First, newspapers and other news outlets will need to acquire a much more diverse funding base, one that balances revenues from subscriptions, advertising and subventions from owners. As long as the press is more or less dependent on the last, it is unlikely to be fully free because the owners will almost certainly want to get what they paid for.

But in the immediate future, subscriptions are unlikely to be sufficient to give a newspaper genuine independence. Subscriptions for virtually all newspapers have fallen dramatically. And consequently, newspapers will have to look for advertisers to fill the gap.

But no post-communist country yet has a developed advertising industry, one that ensures that many companies will make a contribution to the media as they seek purchasers for their products and services. And as a result, the newspapers are still too reliant on owners for money.

Second, owners will need to change their ideas about what a newspaper is and can be. While owners in all countries have usually wanted to maintain a tight rein on the editorial positions their papers take, they have generally been supportive of objective journalism on almost all subjects.

In post-communist countries, the division between editorial writing and reporting has not yet become clear, at least for owners. And as a result, they routinely insist on editorial control of news rather than just advocacy.

Such a change in attitudes is not likely to come quickly, especially if the newspapers remain largely dependent on handouts from the big banks or big corporations.

And third, and probably most important, readers will also need to change their attitudes and expectations, to actively support those newspaper that do provide objective journalism and not to buy those that provide something else.

To the extent that readers do make that choice, they will help promote genuinely independent journalism in their countries. But because of their own experiences with the press both past and present, they may not yet see their way clear to do so.

Golembiovskiy's "New Izvestiya" enterprise thus represents a test case of just how much progress advertisers, owners and readers have made toward this goal and equally important of just how much further all of them have to go to reach a free press. oz/