Oxymoronic Press Freedom

(Center for Defense Information, Johnson's Russia List, May 5, 2005.)

By William Dunkerley

A free press that is subservient to business and political leaders sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it? But yet that’s exactly the concept of press freedom the Bush administration has been exporting to other countries.

May 3 was World Press Freedom Day. On May 9, President Bush will be in Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The confluence of these early May events makes us ask: What will Bush say to Putin about the Russian press?

The United States and other Western proponents of democracy have spent hundreds of millions of dollars in Russia ostensibly to promote the emergence of a free press. What’s arisen, however, is another story. It is one of numerous politicians and oligarchs who are subjugating the press. They pump money into media outlets, buying the ability to distort news coverage in their favor. Often they pressure journalists to use tabloidesque content to attract readers to their biased, self-serving messages.

Russian citizens are furious over this outcome. In the Soviet era they had no choice but to read between the lines of government propaganda for a sense of what was really happening. Now they expect more. But what they’re getting is just more propaganda. What’s different is that the propaganda is now pluralistic. It’s been privatized. Only the government monopoly has ended.

Last year, an opinion poll found that over 70 percent of Russians favor a return to censorship. They fully recognize that the media are not serving their needs. Not by a long shot. They are fed up with the pluralistic cacophony of misinformation and salacious material.

Is a press ruled by propagandists really what President Bush wants to support with U.S. taxpayer funds? It’s doubtful. But instead of addressing the core problems, the United States has spent its money training journalists and media managers to function in a non-existent free press.

This Russian media mess has been brewing long before George Bush took office. It predates Vladimir Putin, too. It got its start early in the Yeltsin administration. That was when a draconian set of laws was enacted. These laws made it impossible for media outlets to be profitable on their own. That’s what thrust the media into the clutches of the politicians and oligarchs. The business powerhouses were even given a tax dodge in return for getting involved.

Is there any wonder why the news outlets have served the needs of their sponsors and owners, not the needs of the citizenry?

President Bush has criticized Putin for clamping down on several of those media-controlling oligarchs, his political foes. Will the President use this visit for more of the same? Or will he finally get serious and open the discussion of how to dislodge Russia’s system of corrupt media pluralism?

The current system illustrates that freedom from the government is not tantamount to freedom of the press. When the media can’t survive without the support of financial overlords bent on distorting the truth, democracy is not being served. Indeed, how can people make informed political choices absent reliable news?

In 1789 Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” That’s the point! That’s the essence of press freedom. The people have to be well informed. The simple presence of multiple points of view in the media doesn’t fill the bill — especially if all are dedicated to distorting the news, one way or another.

The United States has been investing in international press freedom while under a mistaken notion of what the concept really means!

However, the Bush administration is not alone in that misconception. Freedom House, an organization that rates press freedom in countries worldwide seems onboard, too. Only two years ago it downgraded Russia’s rating from “partly free” to “not free.” There’s little doubt that Putin had acted heavy-handedly in reigning in his media-wielding tycoon critics. But, they were mistaken in believing that there ever was a “partly free” Russian press to begin with.

Ironically, at the time Freedom House downgraded its estimation of Russian press freedom, it was a period of milestone achievement. The Russian Media Fund (www.publishinghelp.com/ RussianMediaFund), a private sector initiative, had successfully advocated for the removal of the restrictive government regulations shackling the media. For the first time, real press freedom moved from being an unattainable fantasy to becoming a practical possibility.

But, while press freedom is now possible, it hasn’t emerged yet. There is still another obstacle. It is the intransigence of so many media companies to abandon the financial crutch provided by the current, corrupt system of sponsorship and paid-for stories. They now must summon the courage to become servers of their consumers (readers, viewers, listeners) and their legitimate advertisers.

Let’s hope that George and Vladimir address that issue — mindful of what press freedom really means in a democratic context: keeping citizens well informed through reliable news!

William Dunkerley (wd [at] publishinghelp [dot] com) is a media business analyst and consultant based in New Britain, Connecticut. He has worked extensively in Russia and other post communist countries.