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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Press Has Earned Our Thanks

Friday was Russian Press Day, just another Soviet-style holiday that would have passed unnoticed if not for the tense relations between the government and the press these days -- and if not for President Boris Yeltsin's bizarre message of congratulations.

Yeltsin's impersonal, Brezhnev-era text offered the president's "heart-felt" congratulations to journalists, who, he noted, have done a stellar job of defending democracy. Yeltsin also underscored his personal commitment to freedom of the press.

Predictable sentiments, but unexceptionable. Only, against the background of recent events, the president's routine congratulations seem downright surreal.

Is this the same Yeltsin who, in his only address to the nation since the war in Chechnya began, accused the press of being in the pay of Chechen agents? Is this the Yeltsin who for a week now has been threatening to dismiss Oleg Poptsov, the head of Russian State Television, because the station has refused toe the official line on Chechnya?

And why did the president have nothing to say about the many journalists who have been attacked and harassed by Russian troops while trying to cover the fighting?

Clearly the media deserves better than this on its special day. It has accomplished a herculean task by bringing all aspects of this war to the Russian public, from graphic accounts of the fighting to analyses of the political and economic consequences of the war.

At considerable risk, the press -- still largely dependent on the government for subsidies -- has exposed government propaganda and has exerted considerable pressure on Yeltsin's administration to tell the truth.

Now, the press has taken on another obligation that rightfully should be the government's. Reporters returning from the war zone have become the only source of information for terrified relatives of Russian soldiers, who have heard nothing from the government about whether their sons have been killed, wounded or captured.

The newspaper Obshchaya Gazeta has taken the lead, setting up a hotline that has been ringing continuously since Jan. 9. Argumenty i Fakty ran the telephone numbers of offices in the defense and interior ministries, as well as those of hospitals where wounded soldiers might have been sent. Moskovskiye Novosti has published the names of all known captured Russian soldiers, relying on information from its own reporters and the human-rights group Memorial.

These are, to use Yeltsin's words, measures that help strengthen and defend Russia's fragile democracy. They illustrate the role that the press has played in breaking society's Soviet-era dependence on the state for everything. For these achievements, Russia's journalists merit genuine thanks and respect.