Reinventing a Free Press in the Former Soviet Union


A Pentagon employee was fooling around a few years ago with an Air Force computer programmed to translate between English and Russian. He typed, "Out of sight, out of mind" in English. The computer translated the aphorism into Russian, and then rendered the Russian back into English. It came out, "Invisible, insane."

For decades, Russians and Americans have been using similar vocabulary with different meanings: "democracy," "human rights," "the rule of law." During the Cold War, ideology created such a din that each side heard mainly its own voice. But the communications problems have not disappeared now that the Communist state has withered away; in the midst of an expanding Russian-American dialogue, we still encounter huge distances of culture and history.

This was the experience of about twenty Americans and twenty Russians -- newspaper writers, editors, publishers, lawyers, entrepreneurs -- who gathered for five days recently in the resort city of Sochi, on the Black Sea, to discuss the creation of a free and independent press in the former Soviet Union.

There is no better topic than the press for taking the measure of a society that is groping through the labyrinth of old authoritarian traditions toward more open forms. The press is a place of crucial interaction between economics and politics, testing the status of both free enterprise and free speech. We Americans pushed our conviction that the press probably cannot be politically independent of government if it is not economically independent, a concept many Russian journalists are beginning to accept.

But as we sat around a rectangular arrangement of tables covered in green baize, it quickly became apparent that we were conducting two mostly separate deliberations -- one Russian, one American -- in which each side listened intently to the other talking with itself about its own system.

"We come from a different world," Ivan Klimenko, who edits the business supplement of Moscow News, said at one point. "We are speaking a different language with you."

The Russians complained about Boris Yeltsin's efforts to restrict the flow of information, newsprint and state-owned printing facilities to favor some newspapers and magazines and punish others. The Americans preached the virtues of the First Amendment, market competition and private ownership. The Russians argued among themselves about how bold the press should be when government was so fragile and social disorder so close at hand. The Americans urged the separation of editorial opinion from news and of business from editorial considerations.

Paradoxically, the value of the meeting lay precisely in this juxtaposition of two societies, two traditions. As we talked past each other, we educated each other. I doubt that anyone in either group who was really listening could have come away believing that we were alike, and such recognition of differences is a useful corrective at this moment of American euphoria about Russia's alleged embrace of democracy. You want to root for them, but with realistic expectations.

The Russians who attended -- from Tass, Izvestia, Moscow News, Komsomolskaya Pravda, Nezavisimaya Gazeta and other news organizations -- seemed more eager for advice on business than on journalism. American discussion of journalists' rights and practices found little resonance.

Tom Winship, former editor of the Boston Globe, spoke of the relegation of opinion to the editorial page as "the separation of church and state." Clifford May, an editor of the Rocky Mountain News, gave examples of the differences between news, analysis and opinion. Maxwell King, editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, noted that the most successful American newspapers, both commercially and in terms of influence, "are those that most emphasize the separation of news and business." And I added that they also emphasize the separation of news and opinion.

The Russians offered no reaction to this. They continue, as under the Soviet regime, to lace their reporting with their own or their papers' political opinions, a style closer to Western European journalism than to American.

During a coffee break, I asked Vitaly Ignatenko, a former spokesman for Mikhail Gorbachev and head of the news agency Itar-Tass, whether he thought this was good or bad. He shrugged. "Good or bad, it's our tradition," he said. The only positive glimmer came from Mr. Klimenko of Moscow News, who said that he had never considered it before, but could understand my argument that a reader should be given all sides of an issue to help him make up his own mind.

We had more of a dialogue, but no more agreement, about First Amendment issues. Boris Yeltsin had just signed a law on press freedom February 8 which contained 63 articles occupying 51 pages of text, a level of detail abhorrent to the Americans, who expressed their reverence for the sparse paragraph of the First Amendment.

The Russian law regulates the registration and distribution of publications, requiring that free copies of periodicals and videotapes be provided to the Ministry of Information and other government institutions. It limits advertising to 30 percent of a publication and 10 minutes per hour of broadcast. It prohibits the disclosure of confidential sources unless a court orders otherwise. It requires government agencies to provide information within three days unless the data is secret. It requires journalists to verify the accuracy of their information and "to respect the rights, legal interests, honor and dignity of citizens and organizations."

After the law was explained by one of its authors, Yuri Baturin, several Americans argued that every right listed is a right limited, that a right unspecified enjoys the most expansive scope. Stephen Hess, an expert on the press at the Brookings Institution, spoke of "an inverse ratio" between laws and freedoms in various parts of the world. "The lengthier the law to protect freedom of the press," he said, "the less freedom the press has in that country."

Mr. May of the Rocky Mountain News noted that the First Amendment assumes that rights exist and is phrased in the negative -- "Congress shall make no law. . . ." -- to bar government from infringing on those rights. On the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Bill of Rights, Mr. May said, his newspaper's staff took up a collection and put a plaque with the text of the First Amendment on the outside of their building.

Here was a point of fundamental divergence. Mr. Baturin, a scholarly lawyer, observed quietly that the United States had experienced 200 years of court rulings that created a wealth of precedents, which would cover not only a plaque but the whole wall of a building. Russia was starting with nothing except a traditional disrespect for law and for rights. Without rights being spelled out, he said, they would be assumed not to exist. As for bTC the text of the law, he added, "You should not take it too seriously."

We Americans, obsessed with legalisms, find it hard to grasp the Russians' historical aversion to observing their intricate statutes. Russian laws have not so much a legal as a mystical aspect," Mr. Baturin explained. Then he quoted a Russian satirist: "The severity of the Russian law is softened by its lack of fulfillment."

Some of the Russians were clearly impatient with this discussion. Natalia Basalaeva, financial director of Moscow News, said the press law hadn't been observed. Other journalists described a "black market" in government information, in which officials were trading facts for favors and demanding fees for interviews.

Vladimir Sungorkin, deputy editor of Komsomolskaya Pravda, said, "I think what we're discussing is not the most important thing. The economic situation in this country is such that in a few months the mass media will be ruined, bankrupt. Our newspapers are like dinosaurs." Indeed, his paper's big brother, Pravda, suspended publication two weeks later.

Most of the Russians wanted to hear some ideas about how to avoid extinction. Yelena Kolesnikova, economic editor of the weekly magazine Stolitsa, put the problem to us in stark terms. "We suffered the first shock when we found we could publish without censorship," she said. "The second shock came when we realized that nobody was giving us financing, and we had to earn our own money."

Stolitsa and many other periodicals began as government or Communist Party publications whose supplies, buildings, salaries and other expenses were essentially covered by the state treasury, not by earnings. Now they are being weaned away from government affiliation, but in a market still dominated by government monopolies and extreme shortages of goods. This meant that the Americans' prescriptions for earning money -- advertising -- produced skepticism among the Russians.

William Wasseman, who used to own the North Shore Weeklies, a chain of 10 small papers north of Boston, argued that nationwide papers, such as Izvestia and Komsomolskaya Pravda, could not be profitable.

"All newspaper revenues in the U.S. are based mostly on advertising, and advertising is local," he said. Nobody in Vladivostok cares about the advertising coming from Minsk." He held up the first issue of a new paper put out by a former Izvestia reporter, who had not hired anybody to sell advertising. "When I told him that in the United States we pay advertising salesmen more than reporters, he was astonished," Mr. Wasseman said.

The trouble, Russians told me later, is that goods are in such short supply that they are snapped up as soon as they appear, so producers and retailers see no need to advertise. Aleksei Palladin, the 21-year-old editor of a new computer magazine, got a computer store to buy an ad in his first issue, and it worked so well that the store manager didn't think he would have to advertise again.

Nevertheless, the Russians found the meeting useful, and they were extravagant hosts, producing long lunches and dinners laden with effusive toasts.

I thought too late of giving a toast to Andrei Sakharov, Yuri Orlov, Andrei Amalrik, Vladimir Slepak and the other dissidents of the 1960s and '70s who were not stopped by a lack of newsprint or printing plants, but who typed all night on flimsy carbons to have their declarations ready for distribution against the dangerous odds of imprisonment. These were the people who blazed the trail for the new entrepreneurs of freedom.

?3 I'll propose that toast at the next conference.

David K. Shipler, a former Moscow Bureau Chief for The New York Times, is the author of "Russia: Broken Idols, Solemn Dreams."

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