Russian media lose access to information

Commentary by Floriana Fossato, Asia Times, 5 March 1999

Relations between Russian authorities and the media have often been strained since the end of the Soviet-era grip on information.

President Boris Yeltsin has repeatedly said he backs freedom of the press and access to information. But past governments never sought to push through a Russian version of the U.S. Freedom of Information Act. The current government of Prime Minister Yevgenii Primakov has given abundant signs that it is willing to work with journalists only if it can establish the rules of the game.

Russian media specialists, who in recent years had registered a trend toward relative openness among officials, are now concerned about what they see as signs of a tightening of control over information. They say that indications of reduced information transparency are most pronounced at the regional level as parliamentary and presidential elections approach.

Aleksei Simonov, president of the media watchdog Fund for the Defense of Glasnost, told RFE/RL's Russian Service recently that on-going political power struggles and the collapse of the advertising market make Russian journalists extremely dependent on authorities for their financial survival.

According to Simonov, Russian media increasingly “have to live with the fact that authorities do not want to deal with independent journalists.” He added that there is virtually no possibility of independent journalists having an influence over how they receive information, particularly since the August financial and political crisis.

Simonov noted that two years ago “there were some visible centers of opposition [to control over information] as there were rather independent media, interested in defending their freedom. Today, they are just not visible. The level of self-defense and [the preservation] of standards was shifted from publishers to individual journalists. We can have hope only in people who have not lost their integrity, including journalists. I personally do not have any other hopes.”

As regards the situation in the regions, Simonov commented that the authorities are ready to work with the media “only following old Soviet patterns, when they have control over journalists and are sure that media are carrying out tasks that have been imposed on them.” He noted that last year a new trend in the conflict between many authorities and journalists started in a number of regions and was linked to local elections. He said that some governors introduced regional legislation tightening their grip on the media “in accordance with their wish and in full opposition to the existing federal media laws.” As a result, Simonov said, suits are being filed in court against journalists accused of failing to comply with regional rules.

Russian media have widely reported the worsening of the situation since last September, when the Primakov cabinet started taking measures to limit access to information in Moscow, too. However, the journalistic community appears to be too fragmented and too weak to respond to the threat. The precarious financial situation of most journalists in the regions and—after the August crisis—also of Moscow's journalists weakens their willingness to protest. Many journalists are understandably more concerned about their salaries, often delayed for months by the state and private structures that control Russia's media.

Iosif Dzyalashinskii, professor of journalism at Moscow University and president of the human rights fund Commission on Freedom of Media Access, told RFE/RL that journalists in Moscow need to pay more attention to what is happening to their colleagues in the regions, where, he notes, “the right of journalists to obtain information is frequently violated by local authorities,” with the latter's “grasp increasing the further one goes away from the capital.”

“We would like the journalistic community to take notice of the problem in the regions,” he commented. “There is what I would call a certain arrogant attitude [in Moscow] vis-a-vis the regions. Moscow journalists are in a more privileged position. The conflict with the authorities has not yet touched them, at least not to the extent it has affected regional journalists. We would like the journalistic community, ranging from the Union of Russian Journalists to individual professionals, to try to keep the situation under control.”

Dzyalashinskii said that in Russia's regions, “the possibility of obtaining information has been curtailed.” He called for greater cooperation among journalists, their employers, and others interested in the availability of information.

He also noted that at present, there are some 70,000 non-governmental organizations that have both the necessary experience and the desire to pressure the authorities on access to information. If these groups and the media can find common ground to cooperate at least on this point, “the trend [of blocking access to information] that we witness now in Russia could be resisted,” Dzyalashinskii argued.