MEDIA WATCH: Eerie Silence on Press Day

This Wednesday, May 3, was World Press Freedom Day, an international event intended to draw the public's attention to the fundamental role of the independent press in any democratic society and the heroic struggle of journalists around the world to pry information from the powerful and to deliver it to the masses. One would think that it would be particularly easy to write a column on the Russian media to mark such a noble day. I know I certainly thought so. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

World Press Freedom Day seems very much like a Western idea, somehow inappropriate and incomprehensible when grafted onto post-Soviet reality. It is an event that celebrates heroes, such as the 10 journalists savagely murdered in Sierra Leone in 1999 or the staffs of 16 independent publications in Iran that were closed down by the government just last month. It indicts villains such as Slobodan Milosevic and Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev.

By contrast, the situation with the press here seems almost enviable.

True, journalists are murdered in this country with alarming frequency, and many more are attacked or threatened. On Feb. 10, Lyudmila Zamana, a 32-year-old reporter for the newspaper Navigator, was found dead in Samara, her throat cut in her own apartment. As is the case in the vast majority of cases of violence against regional journalists, it is unlikely that we will ever know for certain who was responsible for Zamana's death or why it happened.

In 1998, the world was shocked by the brutal murder of Larisa Yudina in Kalmykia, but the deaths of 10 other regional journalists that year from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok went largely unnoticed.

Or did they? In 1999, the situation outwardly seemed markedly improved. Only four regional journalists were murdered in connection with their professional work, in addition to the three Russian journalists who were killed covering the conflict in Chechnya.

Given that there has been no public outrage over violence against journalists and no noticeable improvement in the attitude of the authorities toward the public's right to know, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that most regional journalists learned the obvious lessons of 1998 (and 1997, when another 10 regional journalists were murdered in the line of duty): Don't make waves.

I was reminded of a quotation from Alexei Simonov, president of the Glasnost Defense Foundation. "An independent mass media is, by definition, a source of conflict," Simonov wrote about those regions where his organization registers extremely few cases of conflict between the authorities and local journalists. "This is the essence of the role that it plays - or should play - in society. Therefore, it follows that the absence of cries for help is most likely an indication that the ship of freedom has sunk, rather than a sign that it is sailing smoothly into port."

In short, for defenders of press freedom, silence is the most distressing sound of all. And the great achievement of regional bureaucratic totalitarianism is that it has been able to dominate the media largely through the quiet means of intimidation and co-option.

As a journalist wrote this week in the paper Vek in an article that aptly describes the state-media system as a "media-ocracy," the only thing worse than the "information wars" that we have been subjected to over the last few years would be the "information peace" that seems to be looming on the horizon. Anyone who watched the bland ORT news broadcasts during Vladimir Putin's election non-campaign must have recalled Soviet times when all the news was good news.

So what are we supposed to think about Russia on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day? Vitaly Tretyakov, editor of Boris Berezovsky's Nezavisimaya Gazeta, has gotten into the habit lately of telling journalistic gatherings that he thinks it is ironic that, in the West, journalists are profoundly unfree but think they are free, while here journalists are free but complain all the time that they are not.

Maybe I am missing something, or maybe this is the kind of inevitable doublespeak that must accompany a state-controlled media-ocracy. "Slavery is freedom," as George Orwell wrote in "1984."

World Press Freedom Day gives us much to think about. But very little, I'm afraid, to celebrate.

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