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Russia: Media Losing Access To Information

  • Floriana Fossato

Moscow, 2 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Relations between Russian authorities and the media have often been strained since the end of the Soviet-era grip on information.

President Boris Yeltsin has repeatedly said he backs freedom of the press and access to information. However, past governments never initiated the approval of a Russian version of the U.S. Freedom of Information Act. The current government of Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov has given abundant signs it is happy to work with journalists only if it can establish its own rules of the game.

Russian media specialists, who in recent years had recorded a trend toward relative openness among officials, are now concerned about what they see as signs of a tightening of control over information. They say that signs of reduced information transparency are most pronounced at the regional level as parliamentary and presidential elections approach.

Aleksey Simonov, president of the media watchdog Fund for the Defense of Glasnost (transparency,) told RFE/RL's Russian service recently that on-going political power struggles and the collapse of the advertising market make Russian journalists extremely dependent on authorities for their own financial survival.

According to Simonov, Russian media increasingly "have to live with the fact that authorities do not want to deal with independent journalists". He added that the possibility of independent journalists influencing events is "insignificant," particularly since the August financial and political crisis. Simonov said:

"Two years ago I said there were some visible centers of opposition [to the tendency,] as there were rather independent media, interested in defending their freedom. Today, they are just not visible. The level of self-defense and [the preservation] of standards fell from publishers to single journalists. We can hope only in people who have not lost their integrity, including journalists. I personally do not have other hopes."

Iosif Dzyalashinsky, professor of journalism at Moscow University and president of the human rights fund "Commission on Freedom of Media Access," agrees.

He told RFE/RL that the situation is particularly difficult at the regional level, where "the right of journalists to obtain information is frequently violated by local authorities."

"Processes that initially looked occasional --when authorities' intermittently opened up and then obstructed access to information-- are now becoming normal. I would call this stage tightening the ring [of control]. This means that authorities limit the possibility of civil society to obtain information in different sectors. And the strength of the grasp increases as one goes further away from the capital."

Simonov said that in many regions authorities are ready to work with the media "only following old Soviet patterns, when they have control over journalists and are sure that media are carrying out tasks that have been imposed on them."

Simonov noted that last year a new trend in the conflict between many authorities and journalists started in a number regions, linked to local elections. He said that some governors introduced regional legislation tightening their grip on the media "according to their wish and in full opposition to the existing federal media laws."

Simonov said that Kursk governor Aleksandr Rutskoi is one of those regional leaders. As a result, Simonov said, suits are being filed in court against journalists, accused of failing to comply with regional rules.

Russian media have widely reported the worsening of the situation since last September, when the Primakov cabinet started taking measures to limit access to information in Moscow, too.

However, the journalistic community appears to be too fragmented and too weak to respond to the threat. The precarious economic situation of most regional journalists and --after the August crisis-- also of Moscow's journalists, weakens their willingness to protest. Many journalists are understandably more concerned about their salaries, often delayed for months by the state and private structures that control Russia's media.

Dzyalashinsky said journalists in Moscow need to pay more attention to what is happening to journalists elsewhere in the country:

"We would like the journalistic community to take notice of the problem in the regions. There is what I would call a certain arrogant attitude [in Moscow] vis-a-vis the regions. Moscow journalists are in a more privileged position. The conflict with authorities has not yet touched them, at least not to the extent it has effected regional journalists. We would like the journalistic community, starting from the Union of Russian Journalists to single professionals, to try to keep the situation under control."

Dzyalashinsky said that in Russia's regions, "the possibility to obtain information has been cut off." He called for greater cooperation among journalists, their employers and others interested in the availability of information.

Dzyalashinsky noted that at present, there are some 70,000 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that have the necessary experience and the desire to push authorities on access to information. He said that if these groups and the media can "find ground for cooperation at least on this point, the tendency [to close off access to information] that we witness now in Russia could be resisted."