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Russia: Analysis From Washington--Privatization And Press Freedom

Prague, 9 September 1997 (RFE/RL) - Privatization of the media in post-communist countries may not automatically lead to freedom of the press. Indeed, under certain conditions, it may have just the opposite effect, leaving journalists subject to even tighter control by the political elite than they were in the past and audiences less rather than more informed.

That danger, long on view in many of these countries, was highlighted Monday when the Russian government news agency ITAR-TASS named as its new deputy chief Leonid Nevzlin, the former deputy director of Moscow's powerful MENATEP bank.

ITAR-Tass director general Vitaly Ignatenko announced that Nevzlin would "work to adapt the news agency to the conditions of the market economy," a step forward from its current status as a state enterprise permitted to earn additional outside revenue.

And Nevzlin himself added that his appointment does not mean his former employer is planning to privatize the state-run information agency. But even if his disclaimer is accepted at face value, Nevzlin's appointment is disturbing on three grounds.

First, it represents only the latest acquisition of influence and power by one of Russia's largest financial clans over an important media outlet, in this case Russia's largest press agency. Russia's major banks and financial syndicates already control much of the country's national press. Now, one of their number appears set to exercise what may prove to be virtually unrestricted influence on the country's most significant press agency.

Second, his appointment highlights the important and growing set of interlocking relationships between these newly rich financial groups and the Russian government itself, one in which the two work together to promote their mutual interests rather than advancing freedom of the press.

The recent struggle between journalists and the financial concern that now owns "Izvewstiya" over who would serve as that paper's chief editor -- a struggle won by the owners -- is an indication of just what such takeovers can mean.

And third, Nevzlin's new position suggests the Russian media as a whole may be forced to carry what these corporate groups and their friends in the Russian government want even at the price of depriving the Russian people of their ability to learn what they need to know.

Indeed, one prominent member of the Duma recently complained privately to a Western journalist last week that this result of privatization means that Russians are less well informed than they were five years ago. As a result, he said, international broadcasting to Russia, including that by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, has become correspondingly more important.

Many observers of the post-communist media scene have suggested that such unfortunate outcomes of the massive privatization of the media in these countries are either typical of the development of a free press in other countries or a temporary aberration that all these countries will quickly and relatively painlessly pass through.

They point to the fact that wealthy capitalists often established or bought up media outlets in the nineteenth century and ruthlessly used them to promote their own specific goals.

And these observers argue that the newly privatized media in the post-communist countries will evolve toward a genuinely free one just as happened in the West.

But while everyone involved hopes that will be true, there are several reasons for skepticism about that development at least in the short run.

Neither Russia nor any of these other countries have a long tradition of commitment to or even understanding of just what freedom of the press means. Consequently, both citizens and journalists there are less likely to recognize the ways in which privatization can limit press freedom and thus to demand that these limits be removed.

In addition, the post-communist countries generally lack a well-developed advertising sector that can provide an important source of income for both the print and electronic media and thus serve as a limiting factor on the power of owners to affect what gets published.

Advertising does this in two ways. On the one hand, advertising revenues make it far easier for new publications and broadcasters to enter the market, thus broadening the spectrum of owners of the media outlets.

On the other, such revenues gradually contribute to a division between ownership and direct editorial control, with owners receding into the background and editors and journalists assuming a more active role.

And finally, again in sharp contrast to the nineteenth century capitalist West, the post-communist states rarely have a large number of competing media outlets or media owners actively at odds with the government of the day.

That is especially true in the electronic media and even more the news agency world. As a result, the appointment of a MENATEP banker to a senior post in ITAR-TASS is likely to lead to even less press freedom in Russia even if it does contribute to the privatization of this state agency.