Responsibilities Of The Russian Press

In early June, Russian television replayed scenes of a vigorous Boris Yeltsin boogying to the beat of rock music at an election rally. By the end of the month, just days before his run-off with his Communist rival Gennady Zyuganov, Yeltsin disappeared from sight. He stopped campaigning.

Thanks to a frank Kremlin surgeon, we now know that Yeltsin suffered a heart attack back in June. It's not surprising that Yeltsin's aides lied to the press at the time. They didn't want Russian voters to know their candidate was gravely ill days before the run-off.

What is disturbing is the behavior of the Russian press. While Western media were asking "Where is Yeltsin?" the Russian media were virtually silent. Russian television executives cooperated with the Kremlin in covering up Yeltsin's illness. They ran carefully controlled footage supplied to them by the Kremlin. That's not surprising given that two networks are controlled by pro-Yeltsin businessmen who supplied money as well as positive coverage to the Yeltsin campaign.

Freedom of the press has come a long way in Russia since Mikhail Gorbachev launched glasnost in the late 1980s. The government no longer has the ability or the desire to censor Russian journalists. But it didn't have to in this election. One can understand why the Russian media backed Yeltsin. They rightly feared that a Communist president would shut them down or impose censorship. Yet by not pushing the Kremlin to reveal the true state of Yeltsin's health, they colluded in duping the voters. In making the dangerous transition from dictatorship to democracy, compromises may have to be made along the way. But at some point, the press in Russia will have to match its behavior to the freedom it actually has.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.