COVER

MORE NEWS IS FIT TO PRINT

THE PRESS IS SUDDENLY FREER

Anthony Wilson-Smith December 12 1988
COVER

MORE NEWS IS FIT TO PRINT

THE PRESS IS SUDDENLY FREER

Anthony Wilson-Smith December 12 1988

MORE NEWS IS FIT TO PRINT

COVER

THE PRESS IS SUDDENLY FREER

Splashed across three pages of the Moskovskiye Novosti, the articles provided a vivid example of why devoted readers often line up for three hours to buy a copy of the Moscow-based tabloid. Since bitter ethnic rioting erupted earlier this year in the Soviet republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan, at least 60 people have died and more than 100 have been injured. Despite that, few Soviet newspapers have offered graphic coverage of the conflict. But last week, Moskovskiye Novosti printed photographs and stories that gave a thorough account of the situation. One article described furious public reaction at the appearance of troops, saying, “The crowd began to throw stones at the soldiers, and someone fired a high-explosive shell.” In the ensuing chaos, the article said, three soldiers died. With such unvarnished reporting, a new breed of Soviet journalist frequently surprises and occasionally shocks the country’s tens of millions of regular magazine and newspaper readers.

For years, Soviet journalism was characterized by turgid prose and near-slavish support

for Kremlin policies. Now, in a new era of a freer—although certainly not free—press, the most daring practitioners are Moskovskiye Novosti—which is also translated into English, French, German, Greek, Italian and Arabic— and Ogonyok, a slick weekly general-interest magazine. Both regularly carry controversial articles ranging from blistering criticisms of Intourist, the state tourist agency, to accounts of mass atrocities committed under the rule of former leader Josef Stalin. The official government newspaper, Izvestia, also occasionally places itself on the cutting edge of current leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost (increased openness): in January, it will become the first large-circulation Soviet daily to carry advertisements.

Dramatic: Soviet readers are also getting into the act, writing unprecedented numbers of letters to the editor on a variety of previously forbidden subjects. That is a dramatic change from the past, when many newspapers filled their letters pages with correspondence written by journalists, who persuaded friends to sign

their names. Said Alexander Sokolov, a director of Moskovskiye Novosti: “The journalists have come alive, and so have the readers.” At the same time, the Kremlin has cleared the way for foreign radio stations to reach Soviet citizens via the airwaves. Last week, the Soviets stopped jamming the Russian-language broadcast by American-financed Radio Liberty, as well as broadcasts by a West German and an Israeli station.

Fighting: Still, there are frequent reminders that some news is not yet considered fit to print in the Soviet Union. No other newspaper has come close to matching Moskovskiye Novosti’s coverage of the fighting between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Privately, many Soviet journalists criticize Pravda, the huge daily that is the official Communist party newspaper, for clinging to past traditions. And at most newspapers and magazines, critical analysis of the Soviet leadership is virtually unknown, as is any description of the personal lives of public figures.

In addition, speeches by Gorbachev, such as his address to the Supreme Soviet last week, are invariably reported the following day in all major daily newspapers with precisely the same text, page design, photograph and headline. Important news items concerning protests against the government are sometimes not reported at all or they are dismissed in several paragraphs that appear under cryptic headlines on the back pages of newspapers.

One recent story by the official TASS news agency describing how police broke up a nationalist group meeting in Vilnius, Lithuania, was headlined “A meeting was not held in Vilnius.” Earlier this year, Alexander Bovin, a prominent journalist, complained that “forbidden topics” for discussion by journalists include “the entire socialist system, the Communist movement and [the actions ofl our friends abroad.”

JOURNALISTS AND READERS HAVE COME ALIVE UNDER THE NEW REFORMS

Some journalists say that, despite the advent of glasnost, they are often freer to communicate their views to foreigners than to their countrymen. In fact, the most frequently heard complaint about Moskovskiye Novosti is that its Russian-language circulation of 350,000 copies is far too limited. Said Viktor Loshak, the director of the newspaper’s social and economic affairs section: “What we have in many ways is glasnost for export, while it does not fully exist at home.”

Breakdowns: By comparison with their Western counterparts, Soviet journalists work under difficult conditions. The average Soviet journalist earns a monthly salary of less than 250 rubles, or about $500. Izvestia is the only major Soviet publication where journalists work on computers and video display terminals, which are now used by most Western newspapers and magazines for writing and editing. In the decrepit building that houses Moskovskiye Novosti on Pushkin Square in downtown Moscow, the electrical waring is so antiquated that when the first electric typewriter was plugged in several years ago, it caused all the lights on the floor to flicker. Those technical problems, as well as aged printing equipment, fre-

quently result in breakdowns that delay the appearance of newspapers. Journalists also face handicaps in searching for information. The Soviet Union does not have telephone directories or street guides, and government officials acknowledge that most city maps have been drawn with deliberate inaccuracies to obscure the location of such classified sites as KGB headquarters in downtown Moscow. Moreover, the government’s intricate maze of bureaucracies often makes seemingly routine facts—such as the number of traffic accidents annually in Moscow—difficult to obtain. “You learn very quickly to take nothing for granted,” said one Moscow journalist, “and to hold on to every piece of information you get.” Despite those formidable obstacles, many

observers maintain that the best of contemporary Soviet journalism easily matches its Western equivalent. Said one Western diplomat: “There is a daring and unpredictability now that often makes Soviet newspapers more interesting than Western ones.” Ogonyok’s Artyom Borovik, a 27-year-old Soviet army veteran, was one of the first journalists to report on the problems of Soviet troops in Afghanistan. Beginning in 1985, Borovik has

written frequently and sensitively of the soldiers’ fear, disillusionment and despair while fighting for a cause that many of them did not even understand.

‘Terror’: Yelena Khanga, a reporter with Moskovskiye Novosti, has become known among colleagues as “the terror of Intourist” because of her stories detailing the state travel agency’s rudeness to foreign visitors and unreliable reservations system and the poor condition of many of its hotels. Other reporters at the newspaper have recently given detailed, firsthand descriptions of Moscow’s black market and the efforts of co-operative restaurant owners to fight underworld extortion attempts. Said Khanga: “As our readers come to realize we are willing to take on this kind of story, they become

more willing to offer help and information.”

In fact, Soviet readers display a passionate interest in their country’s press. Izvestia, with a circulation of seven million, and Pravda, the nation’s largest, with 10 million copies sold daily, are among the largest newspapers in the world. Ogonyok, which prints 1.7 million copies weekly, sells out within two hours of reaching newsstands. Many readers show their interest by writing letters to the editor. At Izvestia, 75 employees sort through an average of 1,500 letters received every day, three times as many as five years ago. By law, Soviet newspapers must respond to all letters and supply regular surveys of their mail to the Communist party Central Committee—an indication that the government regards the letters as an important barometer of public opinion.

Even in the era of glasnost, the distinctions between government and the media can sometimes become blurred. All of the newspapers and periodicals in the Soviet Union are operated by the government, and the editor-in-chief is appointed by the Central Committee. As a result of that, editors are expected to reflect the policies of the government in their publications. And many newspaper and magazine editors were delegates at the Communist party’s 19th party conference last summer.

Because of that link with government, Soviet officials and other citizens sometimes react angrily to the critical new face of Soviet journalism. Vitaly Korotich, editor-in-chief of Ogonyok, was denounced by some delegates at the Communist party conference after his newspaper alleged that several party members in the Q republic of Uzbekistan had previously £ accepted bribes in return for favors.

I Sharp: And Yegor Yakovlev, editor ^ of Moskovskiye Novosti, recently pubz lished a sharply critical letter written L to him by Alexei Butivchenko, a pro~ fessor and retired army veteran. Wrote Butivchenko: “Your newspaper works not for socialism and our motherland, but for our foreign enemies.”

Said reporter Khanga: “People like Yakovlev and Korotich are heroes. They face great pressure and opposition but they have the courage to let their reporters pursue the facts.”

That sentiment reflects the attitude of many new-breed journalists, who vigorously reject suggestions that their investigative ardor is damaging to the Soviet Union. “I want to see this country keep improving,” said Borovik. “The freedom to tell the truth is one way to measure that improvement.” But, he added, “None of us can afford to forget how easily that freedom could again disappear.” For Soviet journalists and their readers, that is one of the most critical truths of all.

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH in Moscow