Page last updated at 08:27 GMT, Saturday, 7 February 2009

Whatever happened to glasnost?

By Laurence Peter
BBC News

Funeral of lawyer Stanislav Markelov, 23 Jan 09
Russian human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov was murdered last month

"The new Russian journalism first lost its modesty, then its innocence."

The words of Alexei Simonov, a Russian media freedom campaigner, sound like an epitaph for "glasnost", the spirit of openness encouraged by former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s, which accelerated the collapse of communism.

Mr Gorbachev's nemesis - Boris Yeltsin - got re-elected in 1996 with the help of powerful businessmen, whose media told voters that it was a stark choice between Yeltsin's democracy and a return to communism.

"The media showed it could be sold for good money - it showed not that the law is its boss, but that the boss is its law," Mr Simonov said.

He was speaking in a debate at the Chatham House think tank in London this week, focusing on the fate of glasnost in Russia. His Glasnost Defence Foundation monitors freedom of speech.

Twenty years after the tumultuous events that toppled communist regimes like dominoes across Eastern Europe the euphoria of glasnost is but a distant memory.

Appearances deceptive

Russia, like many of its former Soviet bloc neighbours, joined in the global media explosion, with a proliferation of glossy magazines, newspapers and broadcasting outlets apparently catering for every taste.

But censorship and harassment have not gone away. Often their influence is more subtle than in the days of strident communist propaganda.

The murder of the prominent investigative reporter, Anna Politkovskaya, in October 2006, and other apparent contract killings of journalists, show that exposing "inconvenient truths" remains a risky profession in Russia.

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (file pic)
Mr Gorbachev's glasnost unleashed a whirlwind that swept him from power

More than 200 journalists have been murdered or have died in suspicious circumstances in Russia since 1993. In many cases they appear to have got too close to murky business deals.

Novaya Gazeta - the paper that Mrs Politkovskaya wrote for - was cited as a rare beacon of journalistic integrity in a landscape dominated by pro-Kremlin media and news compromised by big business interests.

Masha Lipman, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said that Russian state-controlled television "effectively shapes public opinion" and that "the internet doesn't impact on policy-making - the interest of the web is not in opposition politics".

"Since journalists operate by the grace of the government, self-censorship has become ubiquitous," she added.

The Kremlin's stranglehold over the mainstream media might be challenged, however, if a serious disconnect developed between what viewers see on their TV screens and the harsh economic realities now taking hold across Russia, she said.

Capitalist magnet

State influence over Russia's media in the Vladimir Putin era dominated the Chatham House debate, but other worries about Europe's post-communist media scene also featured.

Communist police arrest a Czech demonstrator, 21 Aug 89
Czech protests culminated in the peaceful 1989 Velvet Revolution

Jens Reich, a former leader of the New Forum pro-democracy movement in East Germany, recalled the sheer power of shiny West German capitalism to inspire rebellion among East Germans fed up with their drab living conditions.

"East Germany seemed to live with an overarching TV screen showing West German programmes every evening. There was a daily emigration from socialism to capitalism, then back again at six o'clock the next morning."

The "promised cornucopia" of the West was "at least as important as political opposition" in bringing down the Berlin Wall, Mr Reich said.

Now he feels "a tinge of bitterness" because the euphoria and solidarity of that time quickly evaporated - and freedom's flame burns less brightly.

Miklos Haraszti of the European security body, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), echoed that anxiety about the "lost habit" of defending freedom.

"The Cold War had one benefit - it was ideologically charged. Which social order would it be? Now there are just illiberal democracies - it's not so significant anymore," he said.

Many still see the internet as a modern guarantor of democracy, with its multitude of forums, outspoken bloggers, ease of access and global audience.

Yet in Russia - as in many countries - television rather than the internet largely shapes public opinion.

The "great firewall of China" is just one example of the way governments can control information on the web.

And as Lionel Barber, editor of the Financial Times pointed out, many websites do not have the resources of traditional media to do in-depth investigations that expose corruption or other abuses.

The Chatham House conference was organised by former BBC correspondent William Horsley, who now heads the new Centre for Freedom of the Media at Sheffield University in the UK.

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