Russian Parliament Seeks Control of State Media
THE conservative-dominated Russian parliament is looking to follow up its tactical victory over President Boris Yeltsin at the Congress of People's Deputies by taking control of the state-run mass media.
Neo-Communist and nationalist legislators dealt a severe blow to Mr. Yeltsin by reducing his powers in the special session of the Congress that ended March 13, and now they say they will keep pressuring him. Yeltsin has seen his authority dwindle steadily in the power struggle with the legislative branch.
"The fight is not finished. It is only the beginning," says Ilya Konstantinov, a parliament deputy and leader of the National Salvation Front, a hard-line coalition intent on reversing radical reform. "There will be a fight for Cabinet posts, mass media ... and so on."
In Russia, where communications are still primitive, television is practically the only information source in many areas of this vast nation. Currently, mass-media outlets, such as the national television channel Ostankino and the Itar-Tass news agency, are controlled by the executive branch.
But Parliament Speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov, Yeltsin's archrival, wants to take mass-media control away from the president. Many legislators, especially Yeltsin's hard-line opponents, complain about a lack of access to the airwaves.
A draft resolution presented at the Congress would subordinate Ostankino and other state-run mass media to the legislature. The parliamentary committee on mass media is expected to debate the matter after the standing legislature, or Supreme Soviet, resumes its session next week.
The mass media could become a crucial battleground in determining the outcome of the power struggle between the president and parliament, says Andrei Richter, a media analyst and professor at Moscow State University.
"Control of central television is essential [today]," Professor Richter says. "It's the only way to inform people and form public opinion." He notes that the neo-Communists, whose influence is rising rapidly in the Congress, the highest authority under the Russian Constitution, are following a historical precedent set by their Bolshevik forefathers. Just like Bolsheviks
Communist leader Vladimir Lenin launched the Bolshevik coup Nov. 6, 1917, with an order to seize bridges, telegraph office and telephone exchange in Petrograd, and then Russia's capital. "Television today is what the telegraph was in 1917," he says. "Back then you had to take the telegraph first, and only then could you take the government."
But even if parliament controlled state-run media, Richter notes, it would be virtually impossible for hard-liners to monopolize information in the way the Communists did during the Soviet era. Several news media outlets, such as Interfax and TV6, a joint venture with American media mogul Ted Turner, now prosper outside state control, he says. (See Independent TV, page 13.)
Parliamant's control over the state-run media, however, is by no means a foregone conclusion.
Mr. Yeltsin's spokesman, Vyacheslav Kostikov, says the president will fiercely resist the parliamentary onslaught on the authority of his office. Yeltsin "intends to act as resolutely as he showed himself capable of acting in the fateful days of August 1991," Mr. Kostikov says, referring to the failed Communist putsch.
The president has been reinforced following the Congress by statements of support from several key labor and civic groups, including the Independent Union of Coal Miners, the Federation of Air-Traffic Controllers, and the Union of Cossack Forces. A statement issued by Yeltsin supporters called for the imposition of presidential rule to combat the "Communist coup" at the Congress, the Interfax news agency reported.
Parliamentary leaders, on the other hand, say they are trying to prevent a "presidential dictatorship."
Yeltsin's control of state-run mass media "creates a temptation to use the might of the fourth estate in the political struggle," Vladimir Isakov, another National Salvation Front leader, wrote in the Sovietskaya Rossiya newspaper March 16.
Hard-liners are not seeking to monopolize mass media, Konstantinov says. If the legislature takes control of the mass media, all parliamentary factions should have a chance to broadcast their views, he adds. `We need objectivity'
"The tone and the material presented on the news would change," Konstantinov says of the effects of possible parliamentary control over state television. "Now events are portrayed in a very subjective manner. We need more objectivity."
Konstantinov's rhetoric does not calm those now in charge of state television. Oleg Poptsov, a Congress deputy and the head of Russian Television, is an outspoken opponent of parliament's media takeover attempt and vows to resist it.
"Such a step, if it is made, will cause nothing but a scandal," Mr. Poptsov says. "It's wrong."