Russia: Lackluster Lesin Pulls His Punches
By Alexei Pankin
Recently I came to understand two important things. First, the press is the fourth branch of power in this country and a force that the government has to reckon with; and second, that standing up for freedom of speech as a universal value and right is not among the chief priorities of our authorities. Here is how it happened.
In February 2001, Press Minister Mikhail Lesin publicly promised that he would release a report on violations of press freedoms in the United States. The Russian and international press treated the announcement as nothing short of sensational.
Month after month went by and there was still no sign of the report. Everyone seemed to have forgotten about the ministers promise and I must have been just about the only person who did not tire of terrorizing him. Last June, I wrote a letter to the Press Ministry requesting information about the fate of the report and then reminded people of Lesins promise in a column in The Moscow Times. The first anniversary of the unfulfilled obligation was noted in an editorial in the March edition of Sreda. But silence was the only answer forthcoming.
June arrived and I found myself in Lesins office, invited for an interview on the landmark Media Industry: Directions of Reform conference.
"Where is the report, Mikhail Yuryevich?" was my opening question.
"It is completed. We simply havent published it yet," was the answer. The minister bent over his computer and in a flash I was holding in my hands a diskette containing the long-awaited report entitled "The U.S. Media -- Problems of Free Speech."
"Do with the report as you see fit," were the ministers parting words. I saw fit to publish it in the July issue of Sreda. Thus, under pressure from the press, an important government document found its way into the public realm.
So what of the report itself? The text, which covers 11 magazine pages, starts with a preamble, in which contradictions in legislation governing the media are analyzed, as well as ways in which laws contravene international pacts and conventions. This is followed by sections on "Monopolization of the Media," "Corporate Censorship -- Self-Censorship," "Blind Spots," "Cliches and Double Standards" (about American journalistic habits), and "Journalists up Against Violence and Lawlessness." The final conclusions, to those of a more democratic bent, will come across as somewhat toothless:
"The question of whether or not free speech exists in the United States can be answered in the affirmative.
"Legislatively, journalists are generally well protected.
"Economically, media pluralism is protected less well than in most other developed countries.
"Journalists protection from violence and police arbitrariness, as elsewhere in the world, cannot be fully guaranteed."
The report was written before Sept. 11. Since then, the timidly critical voice of the Russian government has been joined by a loud chorus of Western human rights organizations, accusing the U.S. authorities of trying to limit freedom of information. Perhaps now Lesin is ready to offer more radical criticism? But no, nothing of the sort.
"I was in America last fall," he said. "And I saw that no one was ordering anyone to do anything. The mass media simply understood the extent to which they could rock the boat. They therefore took the decision themselves to adopt a consolidated position, in order to calm the public.
"And in America there are organizations," he added disapprovingly, "which were very harshly critical of the fact that the mass media supported the government, president, and in essence, the people in this way."
President George W. Bush, it seems, will now be able to sleep soundly at night. Our government did not and does not intend to fight seriously against infringements on freedom of speech in America.
Alexei Pankin is the editor of Sreda, a magazine for media professionals (www.internews.ru/sreda)