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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russian Journalists Fear Free Press Restrictions

President Boris Yeltsin's creation of a Federal Information Center of Russia has sparked an uproar among the country's liberal journalists, who fear that the new body could evolve into an Orwellian propaganda monster.


When he ordered the creation of the center to supervise Russia's state media in late December, Yeltsin presented it as an in-house public relations firm badly needed to promote his shaky reform program.


But journalists who, until now, have applauded the president's commitment to nurture a free press are not convinced.


One statement went so far as to denounce the center, which will be headed by former Information Minister Mikhail Poltoranin, as a "Ministry of Truth".


The center's main task, according to Yelena Fabrichnova, an aide to Poltoranin, is to explain the intricacies of government programs to both the print and broadcast media. She said the center would regularly prepare columns to be offered to newspapers, but that it would be up to the newspapers whether or not to print the material.


"We will be in contact not only with democratic papers, but also with such newspapers as Den", she said, referring to an extremist publication renowned for its attacks on Yeltsin and others that back his policies.


But Yeltsin's critics are skeptical that the media will be free to turn down the new organization's offerings without repercussions.


Vitaly Tretyakov, editor-in-chief of the liberal Nezavisimaya Gazeta, said that the "most vivid traditions of the Communist authorities" had been revived through the creation of the center.


"The 'Ministry of Truth' presents unlimited possibilities for the manipulation of social opinion in the interests of one of the branches of power", said a statement from the centrist Free Russia party.


Creation of the center also made waves on the other end of the political spectrum. Pravda - which used to serve as the Kremlin's mouthpiece - has complained about the center, saying that it would "inevitably lead to the president's absolute monopoly in shaping public opinion at home and abroad about political, economic and social processes in Russia".


Pravda said that the center would incorporate the state television channels, 89 regional television companies and the Russian press agencies Itar-Tass, RIA and Novosti - although at the center itself, officials chose to de-emphasize this and to stress public relations as the main focus of its future programs.


In his decree, Yeltsin said that the new body would ensure "the broad dissemination of accurate and truthful information about the course of reform in Russia and the explanation of the state policies of the Russian Federation".


In an apparent effort to consolidate his power away from the cabinet, which has become more vulnerable to the conservative parliament in recent months, Yeltsin put the new center under his direct control - with Poltoranin at its head.


A close Yeltsin ally, Poltoranin resigned from the government in November under pressure from the president's hardline opponents. He had galled conservatives with his outspoken defense of market reforms. Now, the information center he heads is galling liberals too.


Journalists like Tretyakov view the new body as a potential threat to their hard-fought autonomy, and argue that the creation of yet another centralized administrative body - Russia already has a press ministry - only reinforces the Soviet concept of state-dominated media.


"It will just continue a monopolist tradition", said Tretyakov.


The mass media, broke and still dependent on government subsidies for its existence, belongs 99 percent to the state, he said.


As long as it is dependent on funds, the press remains under the government's thumb.


It also remains unclear how the Russian Information Ministry, which is now under the direction of Poltoranin's former deputy, Mikhail Fedotov, and the new center will divide their tasks.


Although Yeltsin's announcement appeared sudden, the new center had been in the making for several months.


According to Tretyakov, the idea for a government agency that would promote reforms had come up in meetings that Yeltsin holds from time to time with top newspaper editors. Vladimir Shumeiko, the first deputy prime minister, had also made public calls during the fall for the government to strengthen its "reform propaganda".


It is this word - "propaganda" - that sets the country's new-thinking journalists on edge.


"If it takes upon itself the role of censor, of a 'big brother', then it will never find any support from our newspaper", Alexander Drozdov, the liberal editor-in-chief of the weekly Rossiya, said in comments published in the government's daily, Rossiiskaya Gazeta.


"Here much depends on us, on whether we allow ideological experiments to be conducted on us".


Presidential press bureau chief Anatoly Krasikov said there was no question of the new body exercising any censorship role, according to Reuters.


"It will only coordinate policy between chief media", he said.