President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, angered by critical press coverage of the crisis in the Baltic republic of Lithuania, proposed Wednesday that the Soviet Union’s new press law be suspended and that the country’s legislature take control of the news media here.
But liberal lawmakers, denouncing the move as a shameful retreat from democracy and glasnost, prevented the quick legislative action that Gorbachev sought and forced the proposal into a parliamentary commission for study of “measures to improve objective reporting on current events.”
The surprise development, coming at the end of the current session of the Supreme Soviet, the country’s legislature, was the latest attempt to silence critical coverage of the government, and it appeared to reflect Gorbachev’s growing shift to the right.
Clearly furious over harsh accounts in the radical press disputing the official line on the army seizure last Sunday of the Lithuanian television broadcast center that left 14 dead, Gorbachev asserted that such an uncontrolled press is further endangering the country’s stability at a time of crisis.
“I propose that we now suspend the law on the press,” Gorbachev told the deputies. “The Supreme Soviet has the full power to take this step.
“Constructive dialogue and cooperation is very important for us now. I think that all newspapers and television and radio stations should express the viewpoint of society and not that of some political groups, especially narrow groups,” he said.
The press law, approved last June, ended censorship except for military matters and material officially classified as secret. It provided for the establishment of independent newspapers, magazines and radio and television stations. And it set out the right of the news media to obtain accurate information on government operations and to comment on them.
“What is happening to our glasnost? " Alla Yaroshinskaya, a crusading Ukrainian journalist and a deputy, demanded as she leaped to her feet in protest. Glasnost, or political openness, she recalled, had been one of Gorbachev’s greatest reforms. “If this is to be suspended as ‘inconvenient,’ what will we be left with?”
How can the country’s problems be solved unless they are exposed and discussed, the liberals argued, peppering Gorbachev with acerbic questions, and how can the best, most democratic solutions be found unless the options are debated publicly.
Recalling the Supreme Soviet’s prolonged struggle to draft a press law, they quickly recruited moderates to their side with warnings against a retreat on such a fundamental issue.
The debate, brief but sharp, had been touched off by the avant-garde weekly newspaper Moscow News, which describes the Gorbachev leadership in this week’s edition as “a criminal regime” and, under a photo of a man holding a Lithuanian flag being chased by a Soviet tank, characterized the violence as “the crime of a regime that does not want to leave the stage.”
“Is this the objectivity we seek?” demanded Anatoly I. Lukyanov, the chairman of the Supreme Soviet and a close Gorbachev ally, holding up the black-bordered newspaper with its bold headline of “Bloody Sunday.”
But the deputies, who normally back the Soviet president on any issue on which he feels strongly, were so opposed that Lukyanov had to quickly craft a face-saving measure asking the leadership of the Supreme Soviet and a legislative committee to work out measures ensuring media objectivity. That resolution passed, 275 to 32, with 30 abstentions.
This setback was offset, in part, by a decision to broadcast a controversial 10-minute television documentary this evening praising the paratroopers for their seizure of the broadcast center and accusing Lithuanian nationalists of plotting a campaign of terror against Soviet officials in the republic.
As Gorbachev’s reforms have faltered, he increasingly has relied for support on the military and security forces, conservatives within the Communist Party and the government bureaucracy, but found himself under harsher and harsher attack by liberals and radicals in Parliament, in the press and on the streets.
The front page editorial Wednesday by the founders of Moscow News gives the tenor of much of the current radical criticism of Gorbachev--and may explain his anger.
In mourning the victims in Vilnius, the paper said, it was also grieving over the damage being done to democracy. The troops in Vilnius “were shooting at democracy,” the editorial said, not just at the Lithuanian nationalists.
“For the first time, this blow was delivered against the authorities who were freely elected by the people,” the Moscow News said. “Now, when the regime is coming to its last hours, it had launched its decisive battle.
“Economic reform has been blocked, it is trying to restore censorship on the press and television and a stream of impudent, demagogic rhetoric is pouring forth. And the main thing is that war has been declared against the republics,” the paper said.
Gorbachev has complained bitterly to editors, Communist Party officials and lawmakers recently about the media, describing its criticism as disruptive in his efforts to reform both the political and economic structure of the country, and Soviet authorities have moved to curb it in recent weeks.
The assault on the broadcast facilities in Vilnius was, first of all, intended to take them out of the hands of the republic’s pro-independence government; paratroopers had already seized the main printing plant in Vilnius for the same reason. The most popular program on television, a hard-hitting review of current events, was suspended indefinitely this month. And the State Committee for Television and Radio attempted to close an independent news agency.
In the continuing controversy over the violence in Lithuania, another radical newspaper, Komsomolskaya Pravda, which is published by the Communist Youth League, carried an interview with Vadim V. Bakatin, the former interior minister, calling the army’s actions in Vilnius an “overnight putsch” intended to install hard-line conservatives in power in the republic.
“The generals do not have the right to send in tanks on the call of any committee, no matter how loudly it screams,” Bakatin said, referring to the Committee of National Salvation that army commanders said had asked for its assistance in a dispute with Lithuania’s nationalist government. “They do not have any legal ground for the seizure of the television center or for imposing a curfew.”
Conservative deputies, debating the Baltic crisis, called for Lithuania, along with neighboring Estonia and Latvia, to be placed under presidential rule, effectively removing or suspending the elected governments and replacing them with administrators empowered to rule by decree.
“I am convinced that the situation can take a most unexpected turn,” Alexander A. Korshunov, a trade union representative in the Supreme Soviet, said. “Inasmuch as the Baltic republics are still constituent parts of the Soviet Union, I proposed that the president introduce direct rule from Moscow in all three.”
Gorbachev warned Lithuania earlier this month that he was prepared to impose presidential rule there if the Soviet constitution and national laws were not respected, and pressure has been building for him to do so.
The legislature also voted to hold the planned national referendum on reconstituting the Soviet Union as a federal state on March 17. Proposed by Gorbachev as laying the political and legal basis for a new “union treaty” holding the country together, the referendum will ask a yes or no answer on “maintaining the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as a renewed federation of sovereign republics having equal rights.”
Gorbachev said that the vote would be “the final verdict” on whether a republic remains in the Soviet Union, but those, such as Lithuania, that wish to secede would have to follow legislation that requires extensive negotiations on their withdrawal as well as a five-year wait to permit the resettlement of those wishing to remain in the Soviet Union.