Pravda Pledges Candor as Glasnost Embroils Press

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The editor of the Communist Party newspaper Pravda, the Soviet Union's most powerful newspaper, was promising a new era of political candor, open debate and up-to-date information on Monday while the editor of Arguments and Facts, the country's largest paper, was wondering whether his efforts to provide the very same material would cost him his job.

Ivan T. Frolov, a leading Soviet philosopher, an adviser to President Mikhail S. Gorbachev and the new chief editor of Pravda, was speaking of his plans to turn around the paper, whose conservatism and plain stodginess may have already lost it more than half of its 11 million subscribers in the past year.

There will be exclusive interviews, Frolov said, with members of the party's ruling Politburo to explain key decisions, there will be coverage of many of the now-secret policy discussions at party headquarters, there will be provocative debate in Pravda's pages on major issues facing the nation.

"We will not limit opinion--that is the principled line of the party," Frolov, 60, told a press conference, declaring his intention to put the paper back in the center of perestroika, Gorbachev's political, economic and social reforms. "Articles in Pravda will demonstrate a new approach to glasnost (openness) , political pluralism and dissent."

The Soviet press is now one of the major battlefronts in the sharpening struggle over the country's future--the nature, scope and speed of perestroika-- and Frolov's appointment this month and his declaration on Monday were themselves major political news here.

Observing that "no one has ever called me a conservative," Frolov pledged that Pravda would become an open newspaper. "Pravda cannot be of the left or right, and it cannot be conservative or radical," he said. "What it must be is an honest, truthful, responsible newspaper."

But the significance of appointing a leading liberal to edit Pravda, replacing a conservative holdover from the much-criticized era of the late President Leonid I. Brezhnev, has been diminished by the continuing drama around Vladislav A. Starkov, the editor of Arguments and Facts.

Starkov's aggressive editorial philosophy, fully in support of perestroika, has made Arguments and Facts the country's best-selling newspaper, with a weekly circulation of 29 million, and has shamed such Establishment newspapers as Pravda, but it could cost Starkov his job.

"So far, I am still here and planning our next issue," Starkov commented in an interview. "But, the future--well, we shall see."

Rebuked by Gorbachev at a mid-October meeting of the country's leading editors and media officials for the feistiness of his paper, Starkov has been under strong pressure from party leaders to resign.

He has been summoned for heavy sessions at party headquarters and reminded of the obligation as a party member to accept "party discipline." He has been offered higher-paying, more prestigious posts with such perquisites as access to well-stocked government stores. He has been promised that his paper and its small staff would prosper, as never before, but warned that he might have to depart for their sake.

Starkov, 49, who built his eight-pager from a party propagandists' periodical with a circulation of 10,000 into reputedly the world's largest circulation newspaper, has resisted the pressure and blandishments alike. He has mounted an unusual political campaign, gathering support from members of the Supreme Soviet, the country's Parliament, from those who can intercede with Gorbachev and from the international press.

Gorbachev had some valid criticism, Starkov conceded in an interview, agreeing that an "opinion poll" assessing the effectiveness of members of the Congress of People's Deputies, the country's new national assembly, had been both "unscientific, wrong and unethical" since it was based on 15,000 letters sent in by readers.

But this and other mistakes are not sufficient reason to oust him, Starkov has maintained, characterizing them as isolated when viewed against a history of strong support for both Gorbachev and perestroika.

"Once we were described as Gorbachev's newspaper, and people went as far as to claim that I have known the Gorbachev family for a long time and that I even sit in on Politburo sessions," Starkov said. "I wish all that were true."

Arguments and Facts' success rests largely on a formula of short, no-punches-pulled articles that answer readers' queries on a wide range of subjects--the privileges of government and party officials, the extent of poverty here, official corruption, the purges of the Stalin era, the housing shortage, unemployment, the development of the Soviet atomic bomb--plus exclusive interviews with top leaders.

"People want to know what's going on in this country, and we try to tell them," Starkov said. "We are not called a people's newspaper for nothing. Our newspaper publishes only concrete facts and material. . . . Perestroika has created an insatiable appetite for this, and I think our circulation will undoubtedly be more than 30 million next year."

Starkov's fate at Arguments and Facts will be decided formally by the board of the Knowledge Society, a Soviet organization that sponsors lectures and adult education programs and that publishes the paper.

Although Frolov, the new Pravda editor, was himself ousted from the editorship of the country's leading philosophical journal during the Brezhnev era and sent into effective exile in Czechoslovakia, he expressed little sympathy for Starkov.

"This is not a question of party interference in the work of a newspaper but of the line that a Communist, Comrade Starkov, was taking," Frolov said. "In this case, the party has the right to take a position."

For many here, what happens to Starkov is as important a test of press freedom as Frolov's success in making Pravda a real forum for perestroika. If he goes, Gorbachev's policy of glasnost will be widely seen as depending on one man--Gorbachev. If he survives, the independence of editors will have been immeasurably strengthened.

The affair now seems certain to emerge when the Supreme Soviet debates proposed legislation guaranteeing the freedom of the press as well as its power and operating conditions.

"The press and other means of mass information are free," the bill says. "Censorship of the mass media is not permitted."

The law would also guarantee freedom of information and of access for the press to information about government activities.

But the bill requires press registration, however, and that might be denied to certain dissident groups or revoked in the case of critical publications. A further control could be the government's virtual monopoly on presses, newsprint and other equipment and materials.

Frolov, editor of the party journal Kommunist before he became an adviser to Gorbachev, said he expects a heated debate because of the controversy that continues to surround not only Arguments and Facts but the whole Soviet press.

Many newspapers have been a principal vehicle for Gorbachev's reforms, thereby incurring the wrath of conservatives, and they have been sharply attacked at legislative sessions and party meetings over the past year. But some conservative editors and their publications have long been the target of radicals.

Gorbachev himself has twice this month admonished the press to play a more constructive role in backing his reforms.

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