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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

MEDIA WATCH: Libel Suit as Political Dodge

Few American presidents were as mercilessly attacked in the press as Thomas Jefferson. Yet Jefferson appreciated the importance of a completely free press, and his attitude toward libel is so instructive thatI hope I will be forgiven for quoting it at some length:

"These abuses of an institution so important to freedom are deeply to be regretted, inasmuch as they tend to lessen its usefulness and to sap its safety. They might, indeed, have been corrected by the wholesome punishments ... provided for by the laws of the several states, but public duties more urgent press on the time of public servants, and the offenders have therefore been left to find their punishment in the public indignation."

I sometimes try to imagine Mayor Yury Luzhkov - who is widely known for his frequent boasts that he has never lost any of the numerous libel cases he has filed in his municipal courts - uttering such sensible words. But I can't.

The issue of libel suits is just one of the ways that the press suffers from Russia's seriously underdeveloped political culture. A recent report by the Glasnost Defense Foundation found that the number of libel suits filed against the media in the Krasnodar region alone grew from 45 in 1994 to 168 in 1998.

Of those 168 cases, fully 40 percent were filed by the governor of Krasnodar or by members of his administration. There is no telling how many others were filed by his proxies in the private sector. These statistics are no doubt typical of what is going on throughout the 89 regions of Russia.

Whenever I speak to newspaper publishers in the regions, the conversation almost always begins with a rundown of his or her current court cases. Only later do we get around to discussing the weather.

This week I heard from a friend in Volgograd, Yefim Shusterman, the cantankerous publisher of a weekly paper called Inter. Shusterman, it seems, has gotten himself into hot water with the communist governor of the Volgograd region, Nikolai Maksyuta, for an article reporting that the governor had not signed an order authorizing salary payments for school teachers in the region.

Although Maksyuta does not deny that the order has not been signed, he nonetheless feels that reporting the matter was libelous. In an oratory tradition far from Jeffersonian, he commented (and, in the interests of fairness, I will quote him at similar length):

"At present, because of upcoming elections for mayor of Volgograd and to the City Council, city, state, of the City Council, such a squall has been unleashed, an ideological struggle of the mass media," he said, stumbling and stammering. "They are telling people on television and in the newspapers, and what you read - but I don't want to read it - I understand perfectly that. It was Inter, I think, that wrote about how I didn't sign some papers? Well, I'm telling you this is just slander and I must today - I don't want to go on at length - to file suit against that paper and against Shusterman, Mr. Shusterman, personally because for such slander that he has undertaken, for that you have to answer."

And so, having thus clearly explained his position, Maksyuta filed suit the next day and Shusterman, who never backs away from a fight, filed a countersuit in defense of the reputation of his paper. And while the two fight it out, the citizens of Volgograd will most likely get neither good government nor good journalism.

Obviously, politicians have the right to protect themselves from abuses of the press just like anyone else. However, they also have a responsibility to do what is best for the people they represent, even when that means sacrificing their personal interests in order to protect an institution this country so badly needs. And here I am addressing not just the Communists like Maksyuta, but so-called liberals like Yavlinsky, Nemtsov, Chubais and others, who one might think would know better.

If Russian politicians cannot muster Jeffersonian wisdom, perhaps they will at least take to heart the opinion of Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote "I approve of [freedom of the press] from a consideration more of the evils it prevents than of the advantages it ensures."

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