Newspapers Call Postal Rate Hike an Attack on Speech

Several national newspapers threatened to print blank front pages in Wednesday's issue to protest a hike in postal charges for subscribers that they likened to an attack on free speech. But the protest was called off Tuesday afternoon after last-minute talks.

Moskovsky Komsomolets, Izvestia, Argumenty i Fakty and Komsomolskaya Pravda had planned to print blank front pages carrying the message: "You can strangle freedom of speech in different ways. For example, by drastically raising postal charges for subscription."

Unlike in Western countries, the postal service sets subscription rates for newspapers. The rates include a delivery charge and vary between regions.

Many Russians living in the regions depend on postal subscription to newspapers and periodicals. The postal service says that delivering subscriptions is loss-making.

Moskovsky Komsomolets editor Pavel Gusev said the protest was postponed after postal officials and Communications and Press Minister Igor Shchyogolev agreed to meet newspaper editors Thursday.

"It will be an attempt to regulate the question," Gusev said.

The protest was initiated by the Public Chamber, whose members include the editors of Moskovsky Komsomolets, Izvestia, Argumenty i Fakty and Komsomolskaya Pravda.

Other publications that had planned to join the protest were the Ogonyok and Expert magazines and weekly newspapers in the regions, Gusev said.

The four newspaper editors also sent a letter to President Dmitry Medvedev, warning of a "crisis situation," especially for local papers whose subscribers come from poor sections of the population, Gusev said.

"The only way out today is to consider subsidizing the postal service," Gusev said. He said the post office would need 4 billion rubles ($168 million) per year.

"Medvedev is looking into the question," he said.

The protest began Monday when several weekly magazines, including Ogonyok, printed the message on inside pages.

A postal service spokesman said postal charges would not go up this year, but no decision has been made on 2009 rates. "Subscription is a loss-making service, but the post office as a socially significant organization continues to carry it out," the spokesman said.