Proposed Law No Solution

There has been a lot of talk lately about proposed changes to the present law on the mass media, which has been in effect with minor changes since 1991. The Press Ministry has said that it has a laundry list of modifications that it intends to introduce to the State Duma in the next few months. The Russian Union of Journalists has for several months now been circulating a draft law written by the architects of the 1991 law. Undoubtedly, other variations also exist or will soon come out of the woodwork.

Naturally, the idea of changing the existing law is provoking anxiety among journalists. Sadly, there are too few examples of situations in which the interference of the Duma actually improved matters. Moreover, the so-called journalistic community in Russia is itself deeply divided. The vast majority of card-carrying journalists in Russia work for state-sponsored and state-subsidized media outlets. For years it has been obvious that such journalists have needs and interests that conflict with those of journalists working for private media.

When I asked Mikhail Fedotov, the author of the present mass-media law and of the journalist union’s new draft, why a law could not be written that would ban the state media entirely, he said that there were two reasons. First, such a proposal would be politically impossible. Second, such a law would put "hundreds of thousands" of journalists (who, not incidentally, are the backbone of the union) out of work. This may certainly be true, but should it be a guiding thought for those drafting the country’s laws on access to information?

As a result, Fedotov has produced a draft that tries to protect journalistic independence by creating legal mechanisms that prevent media owners from influencing editorial policies. The laudable goal is to keep the authorities, who are footing the bill for most media outlets, from determining their content. It is no coincidence that Fedotov’s draft assigns a leading role in resolving these conflicts to the union that he represents.

However, the result would no doubt be that no private money whatsoever would flow into the media sector, since owners would have absolutely no control over their properties once they bought them and hired an editor. Boris Giller, the owner of Russia’s largest chain of regional newspapers, rightly said that "no one in their right mind would invest a kopek in the media" if the draft becomes law.

In the best case, the result would be a continuation of a process that has been going on for several years now — the marginalization of the private media, especially in the regions. Inexorably in recent years the non-state media have been pushed into filling their pages and airtime with less and less socially significant programming. This was especially noticeable during last spring’s presidential elections, which were largely ignored by private newspapers in the regions.

Consider recent comments by the Press Ministry concerning the conflict between Media-MOST and Gazprom. First Deputy Press Minister Mikhail Seslavinsky told a conference this week that for Media-MOST and for private television generally, "the most desirable type of investment would be money from politically neutral sources, either domestic or foreign." That is, the Press Ministry thinks that private media should occupy themselves with purely entertainment programming and leave the task of creating a "unified information space" to the government. To Seslavinsky, the words "politically neutral" really mean "politically inert."

Another indication of things to come emerged this week from the Perm region. The press secretary of Governor Gennady Igumnov announced that his boss would have no contact with the press whatsoever until after the present gubernatorial campaign ends. This is the only way, Igumnov claims, that he can avoid charges of misusing his official post for political ends under the existing law on elections. So much for public participation, public accountability, democracy itself.

James Madison once wrote, "Nothing could be more irrational than to give the people power and to withhold from them information. A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy." Anyone looking at the media in Russia would conclude that we need a new mass-media law. But anyone looking at the proposed revisions will see immediately that there is no way that the country will get the law it deserves. The stage is set for a Madisonian tragedy.

Robert Coalson is an independent media analyst based in St. Petersburg. This is his last Media Watch column.