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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- The Economics Of Press Freedom

Washington, 14 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Russia's deepening economic crisis appears likely to claim yet another victim: the chance for the development and maintenance of a diverse, free and independent media in that country.

The losses that individual entrepreneurs and enterprises have suffered are forcing them to cut back on the amount of advertising they can place in newspapers and in the electronic media. According to one media watchdog group last week, orders for new advertisements have fallen 50 percent in the last two months alone, and one Moscow advertising agency has cut its staff from 45 to three.

And this dramatic decline in advertising revenues -- the lifeblood of most privately-owned media outlets -- has already had three severe consequences on the Russian media and their chances to remain both in operation and free of centralized control.

First, in the most dramatic fashion, the fall-off in advertising revenue has forced some newspapers to close and others to cut back on their reporting. The closure of the Moscow business newspaper "Russkiy telegraf" last month was perhaps the most dramatic, but it is far from the only newspaper whose finances have become shaky in the wake of the country's financial collapse.

Other papers and even radio and television stations may soon follow suit. But even if they survive, they are going to be less than they were, with reruns taking the place of new programming and news budgets cut back or even eliminated as managers try to find the cheapest rather than the best way to run their operations.

Second, the absence of significant amounts of advertising revenue needed to supplement income from subscriptions and sales has already made many newspapers more dependent on publisher-owners. Not only has that reduced the ability of editors to stand up to owners on political issues, but it has also led the owners to demand that editors do everything they can to turn a profit.

Both of these shifts in the balance of power within Russian media outlets have reduced the ability of editors to maintain journalistic standards on many issues, and that in turn has left the Russian reader and listener less well-served than he or she was only a few months ago.

And third, such pressures on Russia's privately-owned media both from without and within may ultimately have the effect of shifting the balance between privately-owned and state-owned media in the direction of the latter.

To the extent that the decline in advertising revenues force private outlets to close or cut back or hew a political line dictated by their owners, Russians will have little choice but to turn to electronic outlets for their news.

And as has been repeatedly demonstrated over the last seven years, the state-controlled electronic media have been significantly less free and critical of government actions than have the privately-owned newspapers.

But if the Russian economic crisis continues for some time -- and every indication now suggests that it will -- it could have yet another consequence for the media: demands for an increased state role in both the print and electronic realms.

Indeed, some political figures in Russia have suggested that the government will have to play a bigger role if the Russian people are going to continue to get their news from domestic sources, with a few openly advocating a return to state ownership of all media outlets.

That is not likely to happen anytime soon. Like most Russian enterprises, the Russian government also does not now have the cash needed to take that step. But to the extent that the current economic crisis pushes the Russian government and the Russian media in that direction, the Russian people will find themselves with fewer news outlets than they had before.