State's Rights, Obligations

Listening to an analyst discuss the recent case of Irina Grebneva, I was struck by what seems to me to be a crucially important feature of the way many Russians think about the relationship between state and society.

Grebneva is the editor of a paper called Arsenevskiye Vesti, who recently served five days in jail for "petty hooliganism" because her paper printed purported transcripts of telephone conversations between Far East region Governor Yevgeny Nazdratenko and other officials in which they discussed fixing local elections. The "petty hooliganism" charge stemmed from the fact that Grebneva was indiscreet enough to print the transcripts without editing them — including "non-normative language" that, apparently, the courts found more disturbing than the idea that elections were being fixed.

The Russian media expert that I spoke to about this incident found nothing disturbing about the state’s contention that Grebneva should be punished for "violating social norms," and he even pointed out that under existing law her sentence could have been far more severe. Usually a staunch supporter and even practitioner of free speech, he was now defending what amounted to the idea that the state has the right to determine and enforce "social norms."

At first I began arguing that accepting this position opens the door wide to censorship of all sorts, but I soon found myself mulling the basic idea of whether states have any rights at all vis-?-vis their citizens. In this country, it would seem to me far more important to talk explicitly instead about the state’s obligations. In this case, for instance, it would be more constructive to weigh the state’s constitutional obligation to defend free access to information and freedom of the press than to posit the state’s "right" to determine social norms.

This is certainly not the place to fully explore this fundamental question of political philosophy, but I think that it is important to raise the matter because this attitude underlies much of the debate about media policy here. It would appear that the nation’s political and social culture is so strong that many Russians are willing to sacrifice explicit rights guaranteed in the constitution in the name of some ethereal rights of the state that are simply presumed to exist.

On July 23, Saratov region governor Dmitry Ayatskov told a news conference that the Russian president "must have the possibility of conveying his views through the mass media without distortion." In Ayatskov’s view, this supposed right justifies "adequate federal and local subsidies to pro-government media." Ayatskov’s view is typical of much political thinking here. Last November, then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin told journalists the same thing: "The state should have its own media outlets in order to be able to bring the official position of the government to the public." This supposed right is not found in the constitution, in which the people are guaranteed access to information, not exposure to "the official position of the government."

Writing in Obshchaya Gazeta this week to express his "concern" about Kremlin efforts to centralize control over the media, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev also slips into this dangerous mode of thinking. "The government, like society as a whole, has every right to express its opinion about the work of the press, and is even given every means to do so through such instruments as, for example, the Press Ministry."

This is the first time I have seen a justification of the existence of the Press Ministry in this country, and I find it particularly disturbing that it rests on the supposed right of the government "to express its opinion about the work of the press." Obviously, the Press Ministry is not an instrument for expressing government opinions, but a bureaucratic mechanism for controlling information. I agree, of course, that Putin and other public officials have the same right to express their opinions as any other citizen. But I believe that, if the government were doing all it should to guarantee this right for everyone, there would be no need to posit a special right particularly for the government.

I fear that we will never be able to get out of the present quagmire until we really sort out exactly who has rights and who, on the contrary, bears obligations. Only then can truly consistent media policies and legislation be enacted.

Robert Coalson is a program director for the National Press Institute. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of NPI.