The ternal question of freedom of speech

Today’s troubles of the Russian press are known to everybody. They are permanently discussed by all sides. It is understandable that the mass media regularly pays attention to this issue.

The main subjects of these discussions are the loss of independence and thenew owners’ control over activities (the new owners are financial structures); the relations of the mass media and the state power, censorship, freedom of the press, and journalists’ right on receiving information; a tax regime for the mass media, consequences of the probable abolition of existing privileges; and support of non-commercial, socially important editions by the state. Such interest in issues dealing with the mass media can be explained. Against the background of recent scandals, when every conflict is regarded in connection with freedom of speech, all the initiatives were criticized by journalists themselves. First of all, the question is about some deputies’ initiatives, considered as pilot balloons of Ministry of the Press, with which it seems to test people about “screwing nut tight”. Changes in the law pertaining to the press produced by the ministry are called by journalists “a cutlet with potassium cyanide.”

One more innovation of the ministry are licences for new mass media. Deputy minister Vladimir Grigoryev in his interview for Financial Times supposedly declared that the ministry and the government planned not to issue licences for new mass media at least for a year. These measures concern all mass media: newspapers, magazines, radio stations, TV channels, and web-editions. In passages from Grigoryev’s interview that appeared on the internet, the deputy minister's reason for this initiative of the ministry is the fact that the Russian advertisement market is too small to admit all, which is why a balance between the market’s dimension and the number of editions is necessary. To the point, not one of the ministry’s pilot balloons has been realized yet.

The International Institute of the Press believes that there are four kinds of threats to the Russian mass media. First, there is the attempt to put pressure on the opposition press and the government’s tendency to control mass media by using the new information policy, including misinformation and psychological manipulation of mass conscience to destabilize the society. The second threat emanates from official authorities and oligarchs who owni these mass media and using them for their aims. The third threat to the mass media’s independence is the lack of ethical and professional standards in the journalists circles themselves. Finally, the fourth threat is the lack of economical conditions for financing the independence of the mass media. Therefore, let us speak about this fourth point.

At the beginning of the democratic changes in Russia, the press was the draft of fresh air that was so necessary for our society. People were used to not saying what they thought. So, after getting choice, people understood they would never give it up. We could long dispute how we should start the reconstruction of the system, though that is a fact. The Chinese, for instance, preferred another way, and it is not known yet if this way would have been better for Russia. Now, the Russian marked is overfilled with goods, though something is wrong with our main achievements.

Because of introducing amendments to the Tax Code and passing the 2002 State Budget, the press looses its tax privileges since January 1, 2002, as a result, editions will pay 20 percent of value added tax, while duties will be imposed on polygraphic equipment and service materials. According to experts, as a result, the price of printed matter could increase by 80 percent. This was why Deputy Chairman of Information Policy Committee of the State Duma Boris Reznik spoke about “a serious danger for freedom of speech in Russia.” October 6, in the State Duma, parliament hearing about mass media’s taxation took place. The participants concluded that for supporting the press, the existing privileges of the press should be prolonged by two years. On October 26, the government presented to the deputies its view on the issue of privileged taxation of mass media.

It was proposed not to prolong the privileges’ but to impose only 10-percent value added tax upon mass media. While the government agreed to the abolition of selling tax for mass media. The State Duma dotted all “i’s” while approving in second reading measures directed to liberate the mass media from selling tax.

Association of Independent Regional Editors addressed to the State Duma deputies urging to bar from value added tax privileges’ abolition for mass media. “While consecutively realizing the thesis about equal business conditions, the State Duma consecutively deprives regional mass media of economical independence, – the appeal says. – Most of laws passed recently practically makes worse mass media’s situation.”

If the privileges are abolished (or the so-called compromise 10-percent tax is introduced), the local press will again ask local functionaries for money. Only oligarchs and foreign media-holdings will be the winners, for whom their smaller province competitors’ bankruptcy is profitable.

Only the prolongation of tax privileges allows a certain balance between dependent and independent mass media, between local and central editions, the association’s representatives stressed. The value of an added tax is more of a political than an economical question for the mass media; therefore, it should be solved by securing interests of the democratic state.

Of course, the government’s logic can be understood. Macroeconomic figures are worse than in 2000. Besides, giant payments of external duty should be made while the main producing capacities are worn out. Money is the main issue.

According to Russian Journalists’ Union, different power branches now control 80 percent of mass media in Russia. Nobody can say what will happen with the other 20 percent. The new power in Russia was caused by a kind of revolution process, so it considers the mass media as a part of its own system. Now, the authorities intend to use market methods while dealing with the mass media. Large papers will manage in this situation, while the regional press will probably kick the bucket. Therefore, the situation will be similar to one in China: a lot of goods, but no freedom of speech…

Dmitry Litvinovich PRAVDA.Ru

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