By: M.L. Stein
Speakers at World Press Freedom Committee meeting say papers
in the region need more Western media help if they are to flourish sp.
THE TIDE OF democracy that swept over Central and Eastern Europe following the fall of communism did not completely wash away the controlled press, according to a report by the World Press Freedom Committee.
In fact, two speakers said, a free press is still a relatively rare commodity in that region and it needs more Western help if it’s to flourish.
“We must build dams and dikes to make sure the tide does not go back out,” Ronald Koven, the WPFC’s European representative, said at the committee’s biennial meeting in San Francisco April 24. The session was held in conjunction with the annual convention of the Newspaper Association of America.
In only two countries, Poland and the Czech Republic, is a free press “irreversible,” Koven said. The media in Estonia, Bulgaria, Latvia and Lithuania are beset with free expression problems that “seem not impossible” to solve, he added.
But, the speaker continued, there is only limited press freedom in at least eight other countries: Albania, Belarus, Romania, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkmenistan.
Koven labeled as “question mark” nations: Russia, Hungary, Slovakia, Bosnia and Moldova.
Printing and distribution is still government-controlled in several countries as is newsprint supply, he explained. Even when newspapers can buy newsprint on the open market, it is so expensive that the papers are forced to remain small and few exist at all.
“Allocation of newsprint is used by governments for political leverage to pressure newspapers,” Koven related.
And because most newspapers in Central and Eastern Europe have a very narrow advertising base, they depend on government subsidies to stay alive, he said.
Independent newspapers also are hit in some countries ? the Czech Republic is one ? with a 10% value- added tax, which government-owned papers do not have to pay, Koven pointed out.
In Romania, he noted, newspapers in the capital, Bucharest, and other large cities enjoy some freedom but in the countryside, the press is rigidly controlled.
Koven said newspapers stand a better chance of operating freely when they are owned or partly owned by foreign interests as in Hungary and the Czech Republic.
“Those papers seem to be insulated against reprisals,” he observed. “It may not be a pretty situation but some people there are saying, ‘Thank God for foreign intervention.’ “
An even bleaker picture was drawn by Leonard Marks, the WPFC’s treasurer and former director of the U.S. Information Agency.
He said Russian President Boris Yeltsin at one point closed 15 newspapers and one television station. The ban, he noted, not only affected fascist and communist papers but also such respected journals as Nozavisimaya Gazeta. In addition, Marks said, the Yeltsin government took over the leading news agencies, ITAR-TASS and RIA-Novisti.
Marks, a Washington lawyer, cited these other examples of the problems of maintaining a free press in Eastern and Central Europe:
? The Romanian parliament adopted a penal code amendment that makes it illegal for journalists to “insult, slander or threaten” the president or other government officials, police or the military.
? In Albania, the media code penalizes journalists for criticizing the president, parliament or visiting foreign dignitaries.
? Journalists in Poland are legally bound to uphold “Christian” values, which are not defined but will be determined by a prosecutor.
? In Hungary, 129 employees of the radio and television services were fired for trying to gain control of the content of the programming.
Marks also expressed concern about a French attempt to organize an international conference to discuss prohibiting satellite programming to any country without its consent.
“Ted Turner, beware; Rupert Murdoch, beware,” Marks warned. “Where is the freedom of the press going to be if you can’t get news out of the country and they won’t allow news to come into the country?”
Marks said the WPFC soon will start a new fund-raising drive to help finance the free-press projects that it has established in various countries and others that it plans. He said the committee runs on a tight budget of $300,000 a year.
Malcolm Mallette, the WPFC’s project director, reported that the organization has carried out more than 150 practical projects on behalf of a free press on five continents and in the Caribbean since it was established in 1976.
The assistance has ranged from a Hong Kong conference on “The Market Economy and the Media” to supplying a camera and other equipment to the New Chronicle of Dominica in the Caribbean.
One planned project, Mallette said, is the production of a basic journalism manual in French for the Francophone nations of Africa.
In other business, the WPFC voted to endorse the Declaration of Chapultepec, a free-press manifesto hammered out at the first Hemisphere Conference on Free Speech in Mexico City in March (E&P, March 26, p. 9).
Earlier, the NAA’s board of governors gave its support to the declaration.
“NAA is firmly committed to the ideals expressed in the declaration,” said Donald Newhouse, NAA chairman and president of Advance Publications Inc. “The declaration emphasizes the important link between a free press and a free society as well as respect and recognition for the vital role journalism plays in a democracy.”
All WPFC and NAA members were invited to sign the declaration during the April 24-27 NAA convention.
?( A World Press Freedom Committee speaker said Russian President Boris Yeltsin (above) at one point closed 15 newspapers and one television station. The ban not only affected fascist and communist papers but also such respected journals as Nozavismaya Gazeta. In addition, the Yeltsin government took over leading news agencies.) [Photo and Caption]