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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Yeltsin Must Ensure Press Freedom

A genuinely free press is just as crucial to democracy as free elections, and President Boris Yeltsin should act soon to make it clear that the Russian news media, especially television, will be allowed to report without bias or fear.

Since the start of the current political crisis, anyone who has watched news broadcasts by Russia's two main state-run television networks must seriously suspect that television journalists have been subject to political pressure.

Television news has either delayed or simply omitted coverage of crucial events. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this was designed to help Yeltsin. Examples are rife.

Television news did not report that the parliament had appointed Vice President Alexander Rutskoi as acting president on the night that Yeltsin issued his decree.

It did not report that the supposedly defunct Congress of People's Deputies had then formally impeached Yeltsin. It has not explained the humiliating conditions under which deputies now live in the White House. It has avoided all substantive coverage of statements by Rutskoi or parliament speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov.

One could argue that Yeltsin has not significantly restricted the freedom of newspapers. Apart from the parliament's official organ, virulently anti-Yeltsin newspapers like Pravda and Den continue to publish.

But the problem is much deeper. It requires urgent action, especially if state-owned television, which is still Russia's dominant news medium, is to give fair coverage to the views of the diverse political parties that are supposed to take part in the forthcoming parliamentary elections.

Under the current system, television stations here are under the direct control of Russia's Information Ministry. This system must be changed. Yeltsin should set up a mechanism to ensure that journalists can broadcast what they like without fear of retribution or interference.

Other countries with state-owned broadcasters have created bodies to effect this protection. Boards of directors or watchdog agencies are charged with providing a buffer between journalists and the politicians who want to use them. These panels, in consultation with journalists and the community, determine criteria of fairness in the coverage of elections and the distribution of airtime to different political parties.

Even with such mechanisms, political interference in state-owned news channels is a constant danger. But they provide a margin of credibility for those in power.

With Russians and the international community questioning whether Yeltsin's intentions are democratic or autocratic, he must not delay. The time for Yeltsin to prove he supports a free press is now.