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Press Freedom in Russia: Can Americans Help?

Russian journalists want cooperation and assistance, not lectures

IN what seemed like a matter of days, the Russian press made a transition from being controlled and unreadable to lively and exciting, says Barney Schwalberg, professor of economics at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass.

Gennadi Gerasimov echoes that sentiment. ``I remember when we started glasnost,'' the former spokesman of the Soviet foreign ministry says. We wondered, ``What will happen to Russian journalists? We thought they were poisoned by propaganda.... But the press blossomed.''

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Yet, despite the progress the press has made since Russia embarked on democratic reforms, it faces a number of obstacles as the country continues to teeter on the brink of economic and political instability.

The struggle for a free press in Russia was the subject of a recent two-day conference at Northeastern University here that drew a number of prominent Russian journalists, scholars, and others, including Dr. Schwalberg and Mr. Gerasimov.

Among the topics covered were the political management of television, how the West can bolster a free press in the former Soviet Union, and current threats to press freedom there.

One of the most interesting observations came from Vitaly Tretyakov, editor in chief of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, a Moscow newspaper. The greatest threat to press freedom today, he says, is not from the brown/red (nationalist or communist) opposition but from the people who hold power and don't want to give it up, namely Boris Yeltsin and his followers.

A ``DIRTY struggle for power,'' is going on, says Mr. Tretyakov, whose newspaper has remained independent despite pressures from the Yeltsin administration and efforts to unseat him as editor. Those groups ``fighting for power find it profitable to use the media to destroy opponents.'' The government is purchasing many journalists and papers for significant sums of money in order to manipulate public opinion, he says, asserting that ``American reporters in Moscow don't give a full picture'' of what is happening.

Can the West play an influential role in helping Russia's news media flourish?

Yes and no, says Tom Winship, former editor of the Boston Globe and chairman of the Center for Foreign Journalists in Reston, Va. ``We cannot eliminate subsidies [to the media], pay for newsprint, replace government distribution and printing monopolies, pay journalists decent salaries, or tell them what or what not to publish,'' Mr. Winship says.

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But the West can share ideas in personnel management, in marketing and advertising, and in establishing press associations. ``Press associations are probably the best way we can collaborate,'' Winship says. ``They're beginning to crop up in Russia - not the old Communist-dominated press unions - but highly professional groups of journalists getting together to improve themselves.''

Elisabeth Schillinger, co-director of the Russian-American Press and Information Center in Moscow, says more partnerships between Russian and Western journalists will benefit the Russian news media. She talks of teams that help papers consult on everything from advertising sales to management.

Another important contribution is helping Russian journalists gain access to some of the technological advances, like computers, taken for granted in the West. For example, because many of the libraries are in ``horrible shape,'' Ms. Schillinger says, journalists have a difficult time doing research. Getting newspapers and magazines on-line is paramount.

Tretyakov, however, cautions that Americans or other Westerners shouldn't come with the attitude that they have the best solutions.

Gerasimov agrees. ``I think if Americans approach Russians as teachers, it's not the right approach. You must approach us to help,'' he says.

One way to help establish a free press might include building a printing plant in Finland where newspapers could publish independently from the government and then be distributed in Russia. Currently the Russian government controls almost all printing plants and would most likely not allow such a plant to be built in Russia, Tretyakov says.

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