#10 - JRL 7173
Argumenty i Fakty
DOES THE NATION NEED A TAME PRESS?
Mikhail Fedotov, an authoritative media figure, speaks about the new bill on media
Author: Vyacheslav Kostikov
[from WPS Monitoring Agency, www.wps.ru/e_index.html]
A BILL AMENDING THE LAW ON THE MEDIA HAS BEEN SUBMITTED TO THE PRESIDENT. ALTHOUGH THIS BILL IS GENERALLY CONSIDERED NOT A BAD THING, MANY FEAR THAT IT WILL WORSEN THE FREEDOM OF SPEECH AND CIVIL RIGHTS SITUATION IN RUSSIA.
Professor Mikhail Fedotov was the information and press minister under Yeltsin, and one of the authors of the media law currently in effect. He is now secretary of the Russian Union of Journalists, and the author of over ten books on human rights and freedom of speech.
Question: The new bill on the media has just been submitted to President Vladimir Putin. It was drafted by the Industrial Committee, a media industry group. Is it possible that freedom of speech will be cut or the rights of journalists restricted?
Mikhail Fedotov: There is a need for the new law. It should reflect realities of "bourgeois democracy." But it has several very dangerous pitfalls. It can be applied differently. It would work to the benefit of democracy under a "good president" and a liberal media minister. However, if the latter post is held by a person "with a club", the law could also become a large cudgel to be used in political power-struggles.
Another danger is that the law gives absolute priority to interests of media owners. The role of editorial staff and journalists is reduced to the level of assistant personnel providing journalist services - only now it is not to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, but to a media owner, a media magnate. Undeniably, the interests of private media owners should be respected: they invest their money, don't they? Yet journalists and editors-in-chief also should be protected. They represent the interests of readers and television viewers, don't they? So the law should distinguish between issues of property and editorial policy.
Question: What will happen to a journalist or an editor-in-chief under the new law if the "master" dislikes their articles?
Mikhail Fedotov: The journalist would be fired. The editor-in- chief would be replaced.
Question: Will the Union of Journalists call for the bill to be turned down?
Mikhail Fedotov: We would like to amend it. The conceptual basis of the bill is not bad. In many respects, it goes farther than the media law now in effect. For example, it increases the term of television and radio broadcasting licenses from five to 10 years. This ensures greater stability for media companies, making them more attractive to investors. However, the bill lacks any notion of the media being accountable to the audience; the interests and rights of owners and consumers of information are not balanced.
Question: What do you suggest?
Mikhail Fedotov: There is an alternative public bill written by the Union of Right Forces and Yabloko factions. It would be ideal to take the best of both bills.
Question: Our readers quite frequently express concerns that "oligarchs have taken over the media." Are these concerns justified?
Mikhail Fedotov: I would not demonize oligarchs. The media companies they own reflect interests of various industrial, financial, and regional groups, which means they are motivated to express different opinions. Most media outlets are still owned by the state. So the most dangerous "news magnate" is the government itself. Journalists in the regions experience the greatest difficulties, since even privately-owned media companies there are put under pressure by regional leaders.
Question: Newspapers report cases of corruption every day. They name specific officials, parliament members, police and military leaders. But all in vain. Why does the media have so little influence?
Mikhail Fedotov: There is no institution of a "public reputation" in Russia. In the West, if a newspaper publishes compromising materials about a minister or member of parliament, they will either sue the paper for libel or resign. Meanwhile, in Russia even President Yeltsin's decree of June 6, 1996 - "On measures to strengthen discipline in the civil service system" - is not effective, although it proposes that senior officials should be held accountable for ignoring criticism in the media. By the way, monitoring the observance of this decree is entrusted to the main presidential control directorate, once headed by Vladimir Putin. I should also mention that the new bill on the media includes no such provision.
(Translated by P. Pikhnovsky)