MEDIA WATCH: Uniting to Protect Media

When I was invited to write this column, I actually doubted whether it would be possible to come up with something media-related to write about each week. Now, for the third or fourth week running, I find myself laying aside a half-written column about advertising in order to write another "emergency" column that will most likely be somewhat dated before it even gets into the paper. It's hard writing a column about a subject that is never absent from the news pages.

Nonetheless, it is impossible to ignore the Media-MOST scandal and, especially, the reaction of Russian journalists and human-rights activists to it. And that reaction, I should say immediately, has been considerably more energetic and appropriate to date than the reaction to the kidnapping of Radio Liberty correspondent Andrei Babitsky in January. In that case, it will be recalled, although Babitsky disappeared on Jan. 15 and a few lonely alarm cries went up in the ensuing days, it wasn't until Feb. 16 that journalists got together for a special edition of Obshchaya Gazeta.

This time, things moved much more quickly and with far more national scope. The Babitsky special edition was sponsored by just 31 Moscow-based publications and organizations. For the Media-MOST raid, organizers made a bit of an effort to enlist the support of the entire journalistic community of Russia, and, as a result, the special edition that appeared on Wednesday - just five days after the raid - was endorsed by 62 publications, many of them nonstate newspapers from across the country.

I am proud of that response, since the organization that I work for helped spread the word about this action among regional newspapers. And the responses I got were striking. Publishers wrote, in effect, that they understood the importance of standing up and being counted at this time, but wish that Media-MOST and other central media would take a more active stance in defending the regional press, which experiences such intimidation tactics on a daily basis.

From Petrozavodsk, an editor wrote that he supports the protest. "But I am concerned that it doesn't reflect the whole picture," he wrote. "The attack on [MOST] is nothing in comparison with the arbitrary attacks that we see in the regions. I can't help but be disappointed in our 'human-rights activists' and, in particular, in our 'representatives' in government."

One of the immediate reactions to the Media-MOST raid was the creation of a "press freedom monitoring group" headed by former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. It is encouraging that Gorbachev is concerned that the greatest achievement of his rule, glasnost, has made so little progress since he left power and now is decidedly at risk. That Media-MOST is willing to fund such an organization is also, potentially, a big step forward for Russia: I have long wondered why George Soros and Western governments have had to pay for all the press freedom advocacy going on here.

But I am skeptical. The fact is that MOST owner Vladimir Gusinsky has shown very little genuine concern for press freedom. Like the other oligarchs, he only appears when his own interests are directly at risk. When NTV general director Yevgeny Kiselyov says, as he did Wednesday, that "a lot of people we call colleagues have become cowards," I wonder where MOST has been for the last year while the newspaper Chelyabinsky Rabochy in Chelyabinsk has been under constant assault from the local authorities. Where was Gusinsky when the newspaper MiG in Astrakhan spent nearly a year fighting a court order of prior restraint without any outside assistance? How much did Gusinsky give to provide legal help to "colleagues" like Alexander Nikitin or Grigory Pasko or Altaf Galeyev or others who have sat in prison for the sake of press freedom in Russia?

Now, however, I am sure the nonstate regional press is ready to let bygones be bygones. Let's see what Gorbachev can do, not just to protect NTV and Gusinsky, but to really defend the principle of freedom of the press. Where should he start? How about thenewspaper Kurier Plus in Syktyvkar, which is in danger of closing down because of a politically motivated civil suit by the local prosecutor? How about all the cities across Russia that don't even have a nonstate press to be assaulted?

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