MEDIA WATCH: Lesin Is Press Enemy No. 1

Each year the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists issues a list of 10 "Enemies of the Press," spotlighting global leaders who are distinguished by their efforts to obstruct the work of journalists. When the CPJ list was issued this spring, the Russian Union of Journalists hit upon the idea of creating a Russia-only analogue, the results of which were released this week.

The list that emerged amply demonstrates the paradoxes of discussing press freedom in Russia.

For instance, while even casual observers will readily agree that Russia is a country where journalists' access to information and ability to disseminate it are restricted in the extreme, it must also be said that Russia is a country where no journalists are in jail; none have been executed by the state and journalism advocates feel free to publish an Enemies List that includes President Vladimir Putin and other senior government officials. Ironically, those named as press enemies can point to the list itself as evidence of the healthy state of press freedom in Russia.

By doing so, however, they would be merely exploiting the common confusion between the ideas of "freedom of speech" and "freedom of the press." Although even many media-watchers confuse these two concepts and use them interchangeably, it is not an accident, for instance, that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution explicitly and separately protects both freedom of speech and of the press.

In Russia, so far at least, the right to express one's opinions openly has generally been respected. In fact, the open airing of opinions has largely filled the void left by strict government control over access to public information and constant government pressure on the nonstate press. This week I spoke to a regional newspaper editor who is learning the hard way about the difference between freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Her newspaper recently printed an unsolicited letter to the editor that was critical of local officials. Now, although no complaint has been officially filed yet, the editor believes that her paper will soon be sued for libel, while the author of the letter will most likely not be party to the case. Freedom of speech is a raw, elemental right while freedom of the press, in order to have any significance whatsoever, demands institutional guarantees from the courts, the government and society at large. Russia demonstrates that it is possible to have the former without the latter.

The Union's Enemies List is, not surprisingly, headed by Press Minister Mikhail Lesin. Ironically though, Lesin was cited not for his untiring efforts to intimidate the press and bring it under firm central control, but for his assaults on TV-Center, controlled by Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov and itself another great example of the difference between free speech and a free press.

Nonetheless, Lesin has indubitably earned his position as Enemy No. 1 of the press by serving as the faithful servant of the man who appointed him f Enemy No. 3, Vladimir Putin.

The timing of the release of the Enemies List could not be better. Next week, the World Press Freedom Committee, the Committee to Protect Journalists and other international organizations are sending a delegation to Russia to look into the alarming press-freedom situation here.

Although these organizations have been writing to Putin since early May requesting a meeting, they have been met only with silence, and it looks likely that they will come and go without being received by the guarantor of press freedom in Russia.

Unfortunately, it is no doubt too late for the Union to organize journalists in a campaign to pressure Putin to meet with this important delegation (although anyone who would like to can fax the president at 206-5173).

However, it's not too late to decide that the main talking point for this trip f both publicly and privately f should be to demand the immediate dismissal of Lesin and his replacement by someone who has the confidence of the journalistic community.

Since the union has taken the bold step of naming Lesin as the country's leading enemy of press freedom, it seems ridiculous to discuss anything else. No vague assurances by Putin, Kasyanov or any other official can be taken seriously so long as the person implementing them has lost all credibility with the journalistic community.

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