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Russia: Government Policies Suppress Free Media

Many organizations that monitor the press around the world are condemning the government of President Vladimir Putin for what they consider its suppression of independent media and voices of dissent in Russia. In this second of a two-part series, RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill reports on the political basis for Russia's retreat from a free press.

Prague, 10 August 2000 (RFE/RL) -- International Press Institute Director Johann Fritz says that Russian leaders' heightened suppression this year of press and broadcast media is part of a broader campaign to impose law and order after a decade of corruption and license.

Fritz told RFE/RL in a telephone interview from Vienna:

"The Putin government obviously [wants] to run a law-and-order course. And in the minds of many politicians, the media should be a tool to achieve this task. Like in the old days. when Stalin called the press 'a striking-weapon of the Communist Party,' they have not yet understood the functioning of a free press in a free and democratic society."

Robert Coalson, a program director for the Moscow-based National Press Institute, or NPI, concurs. He told our correspondent that he is concerned that Putin's reasoning will lead astray Western governments and investors.

"I think that he [Putin] believes that the West will be satisfied if he, for example, is able to cooperate with the West on issues of mutual security or arms control or anti-terrorism and presents a good investment climate here in Russia and a stable society. The West will settle for these things rather than push Putin to really establish an open society, a democratic political stem here."

Both Coalson and Fritz say this would be a misguided policy for the West. Fritz says that sustained economic development in Russia is impossible, as he put it, "without the free flow of economic and financial information." He says news outlets must have the right to expose corruption and criticize poor management of public projects.

Coalson said this:

"The absence of a free press here [in Russia] is one of the main reasons that corruption is so bad on both the local and national levels. It's also one of the main reasons that the public is so cynical and so disenchanted with the political process overall and not engaged in what is going on."

Coalson says that Western institutions will be cheating Russians if the West willingly trades away freedom for temporary order.

"You shouldn't betray the Russian people by giving [them] the sense that the political system they have now is a democracy."

For his part, the IPI's Fritz says that the West has an obligation to protest publicly and often against Russia's course.

But, he adds, the protests should take the form of demands for positive alternatives.

Since taking over as president, Putin has made public statements affirming his commitment to a free press in Russia. At the same time, says his critics, he has presided over a government that evidently has dedicated itself to controlling all news outlets.

But Fritz says that to attack Putin directly would be counterproductive. He proposes, instead, three positive actions that the West should urge on Russia. The first is the adoption of a reformed press law stripped of clauses that allow the suppression of news media. The second proposed action is the setting up of legal guarantees of freedom of expression and access to information. And the third is the assurance of financial and logistical support to publishers and broadcast stations.

Finally, Fritz says, the West should continue to battle for ways to bring training and education to Russia's journalism corps.

"I think honest and objective journalism needs professionalism, and the media in the provinces [that is, Russian regions] have the greatest need in that respect. But, also, publishers will have to learn greater concern for the public interest and the common good."

Fritz also suggested that recent history supports the notion that Russia can be influenced by sufficient pressure from the West.

"The [State] Duma, for example, ratified Russian membership in the European Convention on Human Rights when the World Bank and other organizations [showed that they were] becoming aware that press freedom and human rights should be preconditions for aid and support."

But the NPI's Coalson was pessimistic about prospects of Western institutions and governments uniting in a strong stand on press freedom in Russia. In Coalson's words: "It's never happened in the past, and the opportunities to do so [then] were much greater."