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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Who Controls A Free Press?

Washington, 23 April 1997 (RFE/RL) - A distinguished group of Russian editors has warned that private corporate ownership of that country's major newspapers may soon threaten freedom of the press there every bit as much as Soviet state power did in the past.

In an open letter to Russian President Boris Yeltsin published in "Izvestiya" on Tuesday, 13 leading editors said that new corporate owners of Moscow's largest media outlets were actively seeking to convert them into mouthpieces of the corporation.

And they appealed to Yeltsin to remember his oft-repeated promise that "we will never again have political and ideological censorship. We have had it and we know where it leads."

The editors said that they "do not want to go there either" but that their publications were being driven that way by the new corporate owners.

The open letter represents the latest escalation in the ongoing battle between major Russian corporations that have purchased controlling interests in these publications and the journalists who work for them.

These new owners -- who include petroleum giant Lukoil and gas monopoly Gazprom -- often expect to be able to dictate both editorial policy and the way in which their employees cover the news.

The journalists who work for them, in contrast, expect the owners to provide them with ample material support but to allow them complete freedom to pursue stories regardless of where these lead.

Some of these tensions between owners and journalists are typical of privately-owned newspapers and journals throughout the world. But others reflect the specific circumstances of the transition from state-controlled media to a free press.

The owners of media outlets have often assumed that they have a right to dictate not only editorial policy but also the news that their properties carry.

Such attitudes were especially common in the early years of the rise of mass publications, but in most cases, the owners have backed away from such a position for three reasons.

First, the publications have diversified their sources of income by developing advertising revenues as well as subscribers, thus limiting the role of the owner in dictating policy.

Second, journalists have insisted on their own freedom to write what they discover to be true, and both they and the public they serve over time have walked away from media outlets that slant the news too obviously.

And third, democratic governments have insisted on freedom of the press as part of their constitutional order. While this insistence has not always carried the day, again over time, it has had an impact on the behaviour of owners as well as journalists.

Indeed, in most democratic states, the owners increasingly have come to see their role as one of public service to the community.

All three of these factors are still either absent or still underdeveloped in Russia and other post-communist countries. Lacking an advertising base, publications are more dependent on infusions of cash from owners.

Both journalists and their readers have less understanding of just what freedom of the press means: the former tend to think it means they can write whatever they want no matter what, and the latter measure it in terms of the media's attacks on the government.

And publisher-owners see it as measured by how much profit they can derive both directly and in pursuit of their own narrow goals.

Finally, the state itself has not yet found ways to institutionalize its declared commitment to freedom of the press.

In addition, these post-communist states suffer from a number of other disabilities in this area.

For many people, including the new owners, there is no clear understanding of the meaning of press freedom, the distinction between public and private activities, and the difference between editorializing and news reporting.

As a result, in the words of one participant in this process, the road from state-controlled press to a free press often passes through a "yellow" press, one in which journalists and their publishers recognize few common standards or restraints.

The open letter published this week in Moscow marks a new level of understanding by journalists of the difficulties they face in this brave new world. How the corporate owners and the Russian government react will be a measure of just how far both have gone along this road.