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Semi-Freedom of the Press

A couple of years ago, Viktor Afanasev, chief editor of Pravda, and chairman of the journalists' union in the Soviet Union, was chiding his journalistic colleagues for letting glasnost run away with them. The gist of his speech at the journalists' congress in Moscow was that every Soviet journalist is a special kind of party worker.

Some journalists, Mr. Afanasev said with concern, were too caught up in the campaign for glasnost. They were forgetting that their primary task was to help implement party policy. He stressed the need to describe positive examples of restructuring in Soviet society, and to avoid being carried away by criticism.

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Afanasev might have seemed a bit of a party fuddy-duddy to the adventurous young Soviet reporters seeking to test glasnost's limits.

Here it is two years later and even the conservative Afanasev is unacceptable to a Mikhail Gorbachev agitated and enraged by what he sees as the non-cooperation of the Soviet press.

Afanasev is out, and a trusted Gorbachev aide, Ivan T. Frolov, now sits in the editor's chair of the principal party newspaper.

Another editor, Vladlislav A. Starkov, is embattled. He may be a journalistic genius. He has taken his weekly tabloid, Argumenty i Fakty, to an amazing circulation of 26,000,000.

But in Mr. Gorbachevs's eyes he is a political dunce. He published a poll casting considerable doubt on Gorbachev's popularity and extolling some of Gorbachev's most outspoken critics.

All this is part of a trend unleashed by glasnost, Gorbachev's professed policy of openness, which goes hand-in-hand with his policy of perestroika, or restructuring.

Mr. Starkov and his colleagues thought that glasnost meant freedom of the press. Indeed, there has been endless discussion about a new press law the Soviet parliament is about to consider. It would eliminate censorship and take a number of steps that would move in the direction of real press freedom. But we are not there yet.

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In a petulant outburst against newspaper editors, Gorbachev earlier this month called them in for a verbal drubbing. He criticized specific articles, scolded specific journalists. ``Get on the team,'' he seemed to saying. ``Get on the team, or else ....''

In succeeding days, there has been restlessness, defiance, and fear in the Soviet journalistic community as reporters and editors have privately debated what all this means, and how they should respond.

What it means, of course, is that in Gorbachev's book glasnost is not freedom of the press.

Glasnost is a major loosening up, but designed to mobilize the intelligentsia on behalf of Gorbachev's particular policies and goals. When the interests of the press and Gorbachev differ, Gorbachev loses his patience.

Is the Soviet press about to be reined in? That would be about as foolish a mistake as Gorbachev could make. He has tried to cast himself in the West as a reformer and would-be democrat, battling the forces of obstruction and conservatism in the Soviet Union. But nothing catches the eye of the Western press more quickly than an attack on fellowjournalists.

One of the problems is this: the polls to which Gorbachev objects, suggesting that his popularity is sagging among his fellow Soviets, may be true. We have always suspected that Gorbachev has been more popular outside the Soviet Union than within it.

The negative press at home may be more than Gorbachev can stand. Thus the inclination to suppress it, even at the risk of bad press from the West.

Journalists have long understood that freedom of the press is subject to the whims of newspaper owners, and the tantrums of dictatorial regimes. When, as in the Soviet Union, the owners and the regime are one and the same, press freedom is ever under threat.

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