MEDIA WATCH: Study Plants Seeds of Hope

There are precious few opportunities to write something hopeful in a column about the media in Russia. That is why I was excited this week when a colleague handed me a packet of quotations from regional officials responding to a recent study of the condition of freedom of speech across the country.

Some readers may recall that last November I wrote about a study called "Public Expertise," which was conducted by the Russian Union of Journalists, the Glasnost Defense Foundation, the noncommercial organization Internews and other. That study examined media-related legislation and access to information in 81 of Russia's subject territories and, not surprisingly, reached the overall conclusion that "there is no freedom of speech in Russia." In a nutshell, the study found that local legislation regularly contradicts national media laws and government officials routinely refuse to provide public information that they are legally obligated to disclose.

After the study came out, it was widely distributed to officials throughout the country in hopes that the damning picture it contained might stimulate momentum for change. One would expect that the easiest thing for these officials to do, as they did with the requests for information in the original study, would be to just ignore the report. Surprisingly, though, many seem to have actually read it and a few even declared that they agreed that the study had uncovered real problems in their regions.

The official representative of the Russian president in the Yaroslavl region, G. Bykov, wrote: "Your letter has been considered and I can report that the draft regional law 'On the Presentation of Information on Income and Property by Municipal and Regional Officials' is being reconsidered by the regional legislature during the first quarter of 2000. We agree with you that certain provisions of the 'Procedures for Accrediting Journalists to Cover the Administration of the Rybinsk Municipal District' are in contradiction with federal legislation."

Likewise, officials in St. Petersburg, Tyumen, Kemerovo and other regions asserted that they would use the study in drafting changes to existing local legislation. The governor of Sakhalin claimed that his administration has created a new procedure that "enables officials to promptly respond to requests for information from the mass media and has made improvements in the procedure for accrediting journalists."

However, many of the comments - even those that ostensibly seem to support the need for reform - reveal how difficult the struggle for such reform will be. Many officials cling doggedly to Soviet notions of media-power relations. Their immediate response to the ignored requests for information in their regions was to "punish" those responsible. The response of the prosecutor of Krasnoyarsk typifies this mentality and the final sentence is particularly alarming in the Russian context:

"We have confirmed your report that the request of the local television station Afontovo for statistical information regarding emergency situations was not fulfilled. According to the deputy director of the emergency situations department an administrative investigation has been carried out and the guilty have been punished. An apology has been issued to the station's director, A. L. Karpov. An agreement has been reached with the television company concerning propagandizing the work of the Krasnoyarsk Emergency Rescue Service."

Further, some of the officials have responded with increased subsidies for the press that merely increase the local media's dependence on the state. The governor of Sakhalin, who is generally regarded as one of the most progressive regional leaders in Russia, wrote that his legislature would soon pass a new media-subsidies law that would give local (state-controlled) newspapers discounts for "renting state property, renting land, paying for utilities and the like." It is worrisome that even democratically minded officials are so far from understanding what the media really need.

The recent upsurge of repressive measures against the regional press makes it hard to take too much encouragement from the responses to Public Expertise. In many cases, no doubt, the support expressed will turn out to be mere lip service. However, Russia is still a country where official lip service in support of the media is actually a step forward. Public Expertise has already achieved more results than I expected. Perhaps there is reason to hope for more.

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