COLUMN ONE : A Coup for Soviet Journalists : The media are taking advantage of freedoms unimagined during decades of Kremlin control. But money--and objectivity--are in short supply.
During a recent interview on the Soviet Union’s early-morning news show, the grandson of a man who had fought against the Bolsheviks in the early years of Soviet power uttered a sentence that, for most of the previous 73 years, might have landed him and the show’s producers in Siberia or worse.
“Lenin was a murderer,” the interview subject said. Without flinching, the host went on to his next question.
The Soviet news media have come a long way since last month’s botched coup against President Mikhail S. Gorbachev. The putsch accomplished what Gorbachev’s trumpeted policy of glasnost had not: a truly free press, unencumbered by the heavy hand of government.
“If I had had this interview before the putsch, I would have been kicked off the air,” said Alexei Denisov, 27, the news-show host. “But since the putsch, there are no forbidden themes.”
Before the coup, the trend at Soviet television had actually been in the other direction, and the level of freedom had returned to the pre- glasnost era. Leonid P. Kravchenko, the top man at the Soviet state television company, had taken almost every radical program off the air and made it clear that glasnost did not extend to allowing irreverent journalists to criticize Gorbachev on the nightly news.
Last month’s hapless coup changed all that. Kravchenko is gone, replaced by Yegor Yakovlev, formerly the chief editor of the radical Moscow News, a hard-hitting weekly newspaper whose stock in trade was revelations about previously taboo subjects.
In his first 10 days, Yakovlev put banned shows back on the air, fired 10 employees who also worked for the KGB, and gave Moscow and Leningrad control over their own television channels.
“We want people to be able to believe what they see on their TV screens,” Yakovlev said. “My main goal is to decrease the gap between the views propagated by state television and those held by its viewers.”
Since the coup, the military and political censors who had looked over journalists’ shoulders in television studios and at many newspapers have been abolished.
The Communist Party newspaper Pravda, faced with a need to earn its own way now that party coffers have been frozen by government decree, went so far as to publish an article by Yelena Bonner, widow of political dissident and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei D. Sakharov.
What is emerging from this revolutionary caldron, however, is not the avowedly objective journalism of America.
The main television stations still get almost all their funds from government, leaving it able to cut the purse strings if stations get out of line.
And most newspapers, like their European counterparts, hew to a particular political line.
“Izvestia will not become another New York Times or Los Angeles Times,” said Igor N. Golembiovsky, the new editor of the former government organ, which has been turned loose since the coup. Instead of stressing objectivity, Golembiovsky sees his newspaper’s role as supporting the cause of liberal, pro-reform politicians.
“We also hope to educate our people in the benefits of a market system,” Golembiovsky said. “After years of being told that everyone should earn exactly the same amount, now they will have to learn that it’s good for them if their neighbor earns a lot of money because he’ll have to pay a lot of taxes.”
Editors such as Golembiovsky must answer to their journalistic staffs, who can exercise their power to choose “politically correct” bosses.
During last month’s coup, Izvestia’s staff forced its hard-line editor, Nikolai I. Yefimov, to publish an appeal by Russian Federation President Boris N. Yeltsin urging the Russian people not to yield to the coup. Not long afterward, the staff dumped Yefimov and installed Golembiovsky, his deputy.
Changes were immediately apparent. Stories on the three Baltic republics, which had previously reflected the Kremlin’s opposition to independence, suddenly highlighted positive aspects of the freedom that Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia finally won.
Andrei V. Illesh, Izvestia’s national editor, said it was impossible to write about the KGB before the coup.
“One of our young reporters had done a wonderful expose on the KGB early this year,” he said, “but it was repeatedly blocked from being published. But since the coup, he’s had several stories in the paper outlining the KGB’s role in the putsch.”
The reporter, 25-year-old Sergei Mostovshchikov, said he felt particular satisfaction from a story about Oleg D. Kalugin, a retired KGB general who had become a politician advocating radical reform. A few months before the coup, Yefimov had forbidden him to mention Kalugin’s name in print.
Earlier this month, after Gorbachev canceled a year-old order stripping the former spy of his awards and military rank and dropping charges that he disclosed state secrets, Mostovshchikov published a biting article accusing the Gorbachev government of easily granting favor or taking it away depending on the political winds.
“Nothing has changed inside me,” Mostovshchikov remarked. “I write the same kinds of stories I used to write. But before, when I wrote such stories, either they were not published at all or, at best, sections of the stories were deleted before they were published.”
When Igor Andreyev, a colleague of Mostovshchikov, could not get his stories published at Izvestia under Yefimov, he gave them to other, more liberal newspapers such as Komsomolskaya Pravda. In one investigative series, Andreyev revealed that the Communist Party was trying to get its hands on more than $50 million that the former East Germany owed the Soviet government.
Yefimov stripped the articles from Izvestia’s pages the night before they were to be published. On the advice of his Izvestia colleagues, Andreyev offered them to Komsomolskaya Pravda, which promptly published them.
Now Andreyev hopes that, through investigations of the Communist Party’s involvement with the putsch, more information will surface about what happened with the $50 million. This time, he will not have to find another newspaper to publish the story.
“I don’t think this will ever happen again,” Andreyev said. “I feel that everything has changed very drastically in the news media, as in the country in general. . . . Our newspaper is not an exception; glasnost has made a big step forward across the country.”
Illesh has high hopes for his own pet project--investigating the downing of Korean Airlines Flight 007 over Soviet airspace in 1983. Although Illesh has written about the subject previously, the KGB always withheld information. But the new KGB chief, Vadim V. Bakatin, has agreed to help, Illesh said with a note of satisfaction.
Bosses Toppled Izvestia was not the only publication to lose its editor after the coup. Two kings of the glasnost era, Vitaly A. Korotich, 55, and Fyodor M. Burlatsky, 64--both chief editors of liberal periodicals and members of the recently disbanded Soviet Parliament--were also dethroned after the putsch.
Korotich was replaced as editor of Ogonyok magazine, a pioneer of glasnost , by Lev N. Gushchin, 47, his deputy. Gushchin said Korotich “had spent so much time away from the magazine that he had lost touch with us and our capabilities. The coup marked the end of the effectiveness of Korotich and of other people in his generation.”
Burlatsky was fired by the staff of the intellectual weekly Literaturnaya Gazeta after 99 journalists printed their case against him in the newspaper.
“He is almost never at the office,” said Oleg Moroz, one of the journalists. “He runs it between trips abroad and sessions of the Supreme Soviet. He is . . . a man of the (Communist) Party elite who is arrogant toward the people.”
At Soviet state television, the old boss was fired not by his staff but by Yeltsin himself, with Gorbachev’s subsequent blessing.
“At this moment, no one seems to know what to do with the new freedom,” said Denisov, the news-show host. “It’s like when a starving person is seated at a table brimming with many different kinds of delicious food. He just sits there for a while because he does not know where to start.”
Denisov has a long list of subjects he hopes to tackle. He is courting the commander of the Kremlin guards in hopes of getting access for himself and his cameraman to the maze of tunnels underneath the fortress, one of which is rumored to stretch all the way to an airport.
“Before, I could only dream of doing such stories,” he said with a smile. “Now we can really make such dreams reality.”
Soviet state television has also adopted a new attitude toward the maverick Russian television company, which broke Soviet television’s monopoly when it hit the airwaves in May.
Under its old boss, Soviet television had done everything to limit Russian television’s broadcast time and technical capabilities. But since the coup, Soviet television increased the Russian television company’s time on the air from a daily six hours and 15 minutes to all day and also gave it access to a second broadcast channel.
Soviet television also gave Russian television its old central broadcasting building, which Russian television executives had been trying to get for a year. And the Defense Ministry gave Russian television a brand-new 14-floor building, which had been slated for use as a military satellite communications center.
“We probably never would have gotten control of these buildings if the coup hadn’t happened,” Sergei A. Podgorbunsky, director of Russian television, said with a wide smile. “It’s amazing how fast it has all happened.”
Thanks to increased time on the air and new equipment, Russian television has increased its two nightly news shows from 15 minutes each to 20 minutes each. By November, Podgorbunsky hopes to have five hours of news programming a day.
One thing remains the same at both Soviet and Russian television: Virtually all operating funds come from the government. Russian television actually broadcasts a few commercials, but they account for only 2% to 4% of income.
Television journalists such as Denisov are concerned that, as a consequence, professional freedom will continue to be limited.
“If a top official wants an hour of our air time during peak viewing hours,” Denisov said, “we still have to give it to him.”
Sergei Parkhomenko, a political reporter for Nezavisimaya Gazeta (Independent Newspaper), argues that television is incapable of speaking independently.
“State television has gone from being Communist Party TV to being Yeltsin Party TV,” Parkhomenko said. “Russian television, on the other hand, did not change. It was Yeltsin Party TV and it has stayed Yeltsin Party TV. There is no objective, independent television in the Soviet Union today.”
“Psychologically,” Parkhomenko added, “it is very difficult for most journalists to be objective about Yeltsin, because he is the country’s newest super-hero.”
Podgorbunsky concedes that it is natural for Russian television to battle on behalf of Yeltsin, the first popularly elected Russian president ever. But he denies that it will be Yeltsin’s propaganda organ.
“We have supported Russia’s democratic government during its most difficult moments, but when life becomes calmer, we will no longer support everything the government does,” Podgorbunsky said.
Yakovlev argues that Yeltsin is not the issue.
“You don’t need any courage to criticize Gorbachev, Yeltsin or whoever today,” Yakovlev said. "(But) it is risky now to oppose populism, to contradict the mob, to criticize not just conservatives but the democrats as well.”
The print media face the greatest financial challenge. During the glasnost stage, most newspapers were financed by the Communist Party, the government or some other semi-governmental organization. Now, as newspapers become independent, they will have to pay their own way.
To make his paper profitable, Golembiovsky of Izvestia expects to ax a lot of jobs. He has already jettisoned the 70 people who handled readership mail. Izvestia once operated 42 foreign bureaus, but that number is down to 28 now, and Golembiovsky said 12 would be ideal.
“We have a total of 130 journalists, but only 30 of them are really active reporters,” said Golembiovsky, whose newspaper has a circulation of 4.7 million. “We need to let a lot of people go and then hire some young, talented, capable people.”
Pravda--the former Communist Party newspaper, which dumped its top editor after the coup but still seeks to protect rank-and-file party members from persecution--is urging readers to resubscribe at a higher price. It is also appealing for donations both within the Soviet Union and abroad.
Reporters and editors admit that adjusting to freedom is difficult.
“We need to have our own voice, but it’s difficult to discover what our voice will be,” said Illesh, the Izvestia national editor. “We never worried in the past about what our view was; we always had to publish the view of the government. Freedom is always difficult--it’s easier to be a slave.”