Dangerously Vague Policy

In recent months, a new word has entered the vocabulary of media-watchers in Russia: informbezopasnost, or information security. In June, the Security Council produced a draft "information security doctrine," a 46-page policy statement that will guide the actions of the executive branch in regard to the mass media. President Vladimir Putin put his signature to the document this week. (See www.scrf.gov.ru for the complete document.)

The interesting thing about this document so far has been the widely contradictory reactions it has provoked. While some observers see it as tantamount to the reintroduction of total state control over the media and even Soviet-style censorship, others contend that this policy will improve access to information by providing guidelines for executive-branch press offices. Mikhail Fedotov, secretary of the Union of Journalists and author of the present law on mass media, stated, "There is nothing wrong with thinking about [information security], and we should have begun thinking about it much sooner." On the other hand, Naum Nim, editor of the magazine Dossier on Censorship, believes that "the most disturbing thing about this document is that the very term information security has come into fashion. It doesnt even provoke alarm or concern."

Indeed, it is difficult to have a clear-cut view of this document, which is written in a turgid, bureaucratic style. "You can characterize it as a bureaucratically formalized collection of banalities about society, the state, the individual and information," summarized Vitaly Tretyakov, Nezavisimaya Gazeta editor.

The very vagueness of the document is what alarms me most, especially since the Security Council spent many months drafting it. In my experience, vagueness is an indication of an effort to hide ones real intentions. Furthermore, in a document of this type, which will now be distributed to hundreds of executive-branch offices throughout the country and interpreted individually by thousands of bureaucrats, vagueness in language will inevitably lead to arbitrariness in implementation. The result will be a slew of conflicts on which the Press Ministry can weigh in as it sees fit.

In spite of itself, though, the new information security doctrine says some things very clearly. First, its mere existence demonstrates that Putin considers the mass media to be foremost an issue of national security, discussed in the context of the military and the security organs. Alexei Simonov of the Glasnost Defense Foundation commented that "the doctrine is intended to defend the state from its citizens and not to defend their privacy from the state."

This is crucial to recognize because many of us think it is more logical to consider the mass media as an economic and social issue. That is, the states media policy should be directed primarily to improve the medias role as an advertising vehicle, as a watchdog against corruption and as a means of encouraging informed public participation in political and social life. There is not a whiff of this kind of thinking in the new doctrine or in any of the actions of the Press Ministry.

Second, the information security doctrine demonstrates unambiguously that Putin views the media as an appropriate sphere for executive-branch administration and control. This is no surprise, but it shouldnt be overlooked. Instead of grounding freedom of the press and the rights of citizens to information in law and in binding legal precedents, this document continues the distressing tradition of "administering" the press at the whim of whoever controls the executive branch. Just as has been the case with privatization, the only possible result of executive-branch administration is insecurity and uncertainty the kind that turns every election into a major national crisis.

In an interview with Moskovsky Komsomolets this week, Press Minister Mikhail Lesin acknowledged that "in a developed society with clear democratic traditions and principles there is most likely no need for wholly owned state media." Russia, according to Lesin, is not such a country. "Therefore, in the immediate future the state will remain one of the major players on the media market." What is unclear is how the new information security policy and the Press Ministrys "secret" budget for media subsidies are going to move Russia from where it is now to the kind of society that does not need state media. How are these policies going to give birth to "a developed society with clear democratic traditions and principles"?

Robert Coalson is an independent media analyst based in St. Petersburg.