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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Long and Winding Road to a Free Press

About 10 days ago all the television channels carried a tragicomic news item about the taking of hostages at the Yekaterinburg television station Channel 4. A jealous husband (or boyfriend) burst into the station's editorial building with a carbine and demanded a meeting be arranged with his faithless ex, taking a number of journalists hostage to insure that end. Everything came out all right for the hostages -- but their colleagues who covered the events were beaten by the police. This episode caught my attention because at the time I was on a jury reading pieces sent in for the annual Sakharov journalism award.

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This year there was a particularly large amount of material about the excesses of the police. This included the widely known -- thanks to the work of the local press -- police "purge" in Blagoveshchensk, Bashkortostan, last December, and an analogous case, which has remained largely unknown, in a village in the Stavropol region. Descriptions of torture in police stations came in from all over. Indeed, the main impression left with me this year was of a hard-to-explain animosity on the part of the keepers of public order against the ordinary citizens whom they are, by definition, supposed to protect. This is, of course, a sign of serious ill health in our society.

On the other hand, I remind myself (so as not to get depressed) that I am reading about these abuses in a free press. And I see there that journalists are not simply describing the frightening details, but also not infrequently managing to help the victims of these abuses get some justice in the courts. People seemed to be singing dirges for the deceased free press in Russia -- and yet it goes right on, thank you very much, performing its fourth estate function: defending the weak and restraining the powerful.

At the end of every year I pose the proverbial optimist-pessimist question: Is the glass half empty or half full? Sometimes I come to paradoxical conclusions. You remember what happened in 2005 to Moskovskiye Novosti, the scandals involving this journalistic "dream team." The paper went from the hands of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Leonid Nevzlin to those of Ukrainian media magnate Vadim Rabinovich, and from there on to entrepreneur Arkady Gaidamak. The latter did not disguise the fact that this was a way for him to satisfy his vanity. So the end result would seem to be the prostitution of one of Russia's most famous brand name newspapers. Nevertheless, bereft of its "stars," who while there had been putting most of their energies -- to the annoyance of their traditional readership -- into love letters for Khodorkovsky and Nevzlin, Moskovskiye Novosti in some miraculous way woke up, took heart and turned into an outstanding weekly newspaper. And the outcast "stars," in turn, began to put out the monthly Bolshaya Politika, the prototype of a quality intellectual magazine. In other words, from one bad publication two good ones emerged.

Or take the new television channel Russia Today. At first glance, creating a 24-hour news channel in English for $30 million seems a rather wasteful way to better Russia's image abroad. But I remember what a sensation the first broadcasts in English by Radio Moscow were on the eve of the 1980 Olympics. Even against a background of total propaganda, the news was more diversified, Western music was played, and even Russian rock-and-roll, still semi-underground at the time, began to be broadcast on a regular basis. And how many people were helped by this "propaganda radio" to learn English even as it helped accustom everyone to a new and different standard of broadcasting. And incidentally, it was this foreign-oriented broadcasting that served as the smithy to forge cadres for a new kind of television broadcasting that was to appear at the beginning of perestroika.

I hold similar hopes for Russia Today. Our path to democracy and freedom of speech is not an easy one -- it is strange and tortuous. But we will get there. Although not by next year.

Alexei Pankin is opinion page editor at Izvestia.