MEDIA WATCH: Clinton's Moral Obligation

I imagine that sometime during this weekend's summit between presidents Bill Clinton and Vladimir Putin, the conversation will turn to the state of press freedom in Russia. The scandals around Radio Liberty correspondent Andrei Babitsky and the recent raid against Media-MOST make it inevitable that Clinton will express his concern that Putin's oft-stated predilection for a "dictatorship of law" masks a fundamentally hostile attitude toward open society and democratic institutions.

Nonetheless, concern for civil liberties and freedom of the press is nowhere near the top of the summit agenda. According to a spokesman for the U.S. State Department, it is not formally on the agenda at all, although we are told, "President Clinton will be speaking to the media and publicly" on this issue.

One crucial aspect of the government's recent actions with regard to the press that I pray Clinton will address is a phenomenon that I call "creeping xenophobia." I have been particularly alarmed over the last year or so by repeated efforts of authorities at all levels to tar the nonstate media and civic groups generally with the accusation that they are in the pay of either Chechen terrorists or foreign security agencies.

Such unsubstantiated accusations have played a major role in many recent high-profile scandals, from the case of environmental activist Alexander Nikitin to that of journalists Grigory Pasko and Babitsky. Every time Media-MOST comes into conflict with the authorities, there is a subtext of innuendo about the fact that Vladimir Gusinsky is a Jew and holds Israeli citizenship.

In the last two weeks, officials of the Press Ministry have spoken out on several occasions against "media that act against the interests of Russia" and have called for tougher laws to combat the "abuse of freedom of speech." Putin himself, it will be remembered, stated in January that he thought that Babitsky was "clearly in the service of the enemy."

In February, national state media spread the story that millions of dollars had been smuggled into Russia by Chechen terrorists in order to bribe journalists "to communicate distortions and false information about acting President Vladimir Putin and the armed forces in Chechnya." This shows how easily the charge of foreign infiltration can be expanded from merely affecting outlets that are formally foreign-owned to virtually any company or even individual that the state decides to target.

Clinton should take these developments very seriously and should use the summit to unambiguously deflate these dangerous trial balloons. After all, Western (particularly U.S.) assistance has, in one way or another, touched virtually every nonstate media outlet and every civic group in the country over the last eight years. There is hardly a journalist in Russia who has not attended a Western-funded seminar (been "brainwashed," as the xenophobes would say) and hardly a single significant nonstate media outlet here that has not received some form of Western-financed assistance (been "bought").

In 1997, I participated in a U.S.-funded project that installed a private newspaper printing press in Volgograd. Local state-controlled media rabidly attacked the project: Volgogradskaya Pravda printed an interview with Vladimir Zhirinovsky in which he said, "Your newspaper Gorodskiye Vesti received $500,000. For what? In order to be a pro-American organ in Volgograd. Americans don't give money out of the goodness of their hearts. ... It is obvious who is for Russia and who is against."

Two years later, another Western-funded organization completed a similar project in Chelyabinsk. The official reaction was identical. Deputy Governor Andrei Kosilov told reporters that "local organs had been asked to keep track of the Americans in a region that has concentrated so much of the country's strategic nuclear potential." The paper that hosted this project has been under unrelenting assault for more than a year.

For nearly a decade, the West has been aiding a vast range of non-governmental organizations and nonstate media outlets across Russia. A lot of dedicated people have responded to Western-supported efforts to stimulate public life in the regions and have put themselves in truly dangerous positions. President Clinton has a moral obligation to defend them forcefully before it is too late. Otherwise, I fear we will see more and more cases where Western assistance actually serves as the pretext for further crackdowns.

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