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Why a Free Press Irritates Some East European Politicians

Garmisch-Partenkirchen, July 19 (RFE/RL) - Freely-elected parliaments and a free, inquisitive media are two important elements of the new democracies in the former Soviet Union and Central Europe.

But not all parliamentarians are comfortable with the new freedom of journalists to publish what they wish.

About 70 parliamentarians from Russia, Ukraine and 14 other countries talked about relations between politicians and the media in a democratic society this week during a seminar organized by the U.S. Defense Department at its European Center for Security Studies

Peeter Lorents, the chairman of the defense committee of the Estonian parliament, spoke about the harm which could be done by inaccurate information distributed by the media.

Companies could lose money through incorrect and damaging reports, he said. Prominent people, including politicians, could lose their reputations.

"Many ask whether there should be some sort of control, some sort of rules for the mass media," said Lorents. "Shouldn't someone have to pay for the damage done by incorrect reporting?"

Andriy Mostysky, a member of the foreign affairs committee of the Ukrainian parliament, also questioned the power of the media.

"Quite a lot of politicians believe the press misuses its new freedoms," he said. "Some believe the media is only interested in bad news because that makes a good story. Many think the press blows problems out of proportion. Some politicians come to think that perhaps the media should be under control so that it cannot manipulate news and events and so that it covers events objectively."

The suggestion that a society might benefit from controls on the freedom of the press was vigorously rejected by Warren Nelson, for many years a Washington journalist and later press secretary for former U.S. Secretary of Defense Les Aspin.

"Yes, a free press can be irritating," he said, agreeing with comments of several speakers. "It asks uncomfortable questions. It uncovers mistakes which ministers and politicians would prefer not be publicized. It looks for weaknesses in political leaders. It loves to find a scandal. And, yes, sometimes it makes mistakes and damages innocent people.

"But you cannot have a democracy if you are going to have strong controls on what can and cannot appear in the media. A free press, even if it sometimes drives you into a fury, is one of the things you have to put up with if you are going to have a democracy."

Nelson agreed that the media could destroy a reputation with inaccurate or biased reporting. But he said the excesses of the media should be controlled by laws, not by censorship or government control.

"In Western countries, the law of libel is a powerful weapon," he said. "If it can be proved that a newspaper, a television station or other media have deliberately misconstrued the facts they can be sued and made to pay compensation. In most democratic countries there are other laws which can be used to protect the individual.

"But control of the media comes down to a government saying: Such and such a newspaper or such and such a television station or radio is reporting or investigating things we don't want the people to know about. That is censorship. And censorship is not part of a democracy except in rare circumstances. Once it starts it is difficult to stop."

Nelson was supported by another American media analyst, John Rendon, who warned that politicians could suffer if they try to decide what people should and should not hear.

"Sooner or later, control of the media will lead to your own speeches and statements being censored or banned," he said.

Rendon said it is very risky for any government to take the power to decide what is acceptable in regard to news and information.

"Sooner or later, the people realize that the news is being manipulated to suit the government and they lose faith in the government. It may not have immediate consequences, but in the long term a government which has lost trust will suffer."

The American moderators gave examples of scandals uncovered by investigating journalists. They acknowledged that the speed of communications in the modern world sometimes means that stories get on the air before the facts were established. Sometimes they turn out to be only rumors.

Rendon recalled that last October a story spread across the world about an impending military coup in Mexico. It never happened, but it caused an economic loss of millions of dollars in Mexico. In India in 1994 the media carried reports of bubonic plague in parts of the country. The report was untrue, but it cost the Indian economoy millions of dollars due to unnecessary precautions by the Government and cancelled tours by foreign tourists

"The speed of modern communications puts extra responsibility on a journalist to ensure that the story is true," Rendon said. But the fact that mistakes occur cannot be used as an excuse for government control of what is printed or put on the air.

Responding to a question about access to information, Warren Nelson related his experiences as a journalist in Iran, both under the Shah and under the Islamic fundamentalists who overthrew him. He said it was very difficult for a journalist to report fairly and honestly on governments which either withhold information or deliberately publish inaccurate information.

"In the end it is the government which suffers because it is not trusted at home or abroad," he said.