Sala de Prensa

Noviembre 2003
Año V, Vol. 2




Why no news ombudsmen in the CIS,
and what is being done to change it?

Andrei Richter *

Russia, as well as other former Soviet republics with the exception of the Baltic states, present examples of the mass media system that operates without ombudsmen and very little -if at all- self-regulation of the journalists. What are the reasons for it, and what can be done to improve the situation?

The first reason, in my view, is denial of the past.

In the Soviet times, the newspapers and other news media to a degree were themselves readers' ombudsmen. The largest department of any given newspaper was then the letters' department with the stuff of as many as 100, like in Izvestia daily. That corresponded to the Leninist notion of the people's press, which should be a watchdog, but a guided one, to watch bureaucrats, inefficient public officials and managers, as well as, in the 1930s -to watch and report on the enemies of the people.

Sociology (and its methods) most of the Soviet period was considered as a false science. Therefore analysis of the letters send to the editors of the news outlets served as an important indicator of public opinion for the communist party and Soviet authorities, KGB included.

By law all letters were to be individually answered within 30 days. Since most of them were complaints often unrelated to the stories published by the news outlet, the editors were redirecting them to the responsible bodies that were in the position to react to the complaints. Those complaints ranged from the need to have a bus route in the newly constructed neighborhood, repair doorways in an apartment block, improve mail service in a particular village, etc. The letters were now accompanied by the notes from the editor urging the officials to take urgent steps, or else. Needless to say that was an efficient though a twisted way to defend the rights of the audience.

Those letters' departments were cut down to a minimum or even shut down when the obligation to answer letters was abolished and editors felt the need to cut costs in the transition to the market economy.

Ethics, codes of practice are an essential element for an environment where ombudsmen could operate. For several decades the only code of ethics that hung in every public office throughout the country was The Code of Morals for the Communism Builder. Naturally in the early 1990s it was thrown into the dustbin together with the hammer and sickle. And nothing was put into its place. Freedom, especially freedom of the press, the biggest achievement in this transition, could not be restricted: that has been the general understanding of the editors and journalists.

The second reason for the absence of ombudsmen and lack of self-regulation is lack of knowledge on the subject. There is a dominating idea among the ex-Soviet journalists that in the West, which serves as our model, the press is free but not necessarily responsible to the audience. Social responsibility equals socialist responsibility. Notion of ombudsmen is generally unknown.

The Moscow Media Law and Policy Institute, together with two members of the Organization of News Ombudsmen (ONO) -Ian Mayes of the Guardian and Stephen Prichard of the Observer-, and with the support of the U.K.'s Department for International Development, works on a project to spread knowledge on the Western models of press self-regulation to the regions of Nizhny Novgorod and Rostov-on-Don in Russia and establish there such bodies. We will be grateful to have even more support from ONO in this project.

The last but definitely not the least reason for lack of self-regulation is an economic one. In the coverage of public and social life and in political reporting the overall majority of the press outlets in Russia do not depend to a degree that really matters on the audience. They depend in their financial success not so much on the advertising revenue as on monetary infusions. Advertising money in CIS countries is a fraction with the amounts spent on that is the West. Poland spends times more than Russia. With such small advertising money the number of media outlets is mind-boggling. Ukraine, as well as Russia, has more broadcasters than any given country in Western Europe. Any major city boasts a dozen of daily newspapers.

The money to support these outlets comes from the governments of all levels, political parties and groupings -to propagate their policy. And since that is not enough to make people watch and read that -this propaganda is typically packaged in an attractive entertainment wrapping, which needs even more money.

The money comes from criminal circles and businesses. They are ready to spend money on an economically unprofitable enterprise because this is a perfect vehicle to mount pressure on the policy-makers to bring, in the final end, economic benefits for the core businesses of the donors.

What are the ways to improve the situation?

Improved economy of the CIS countries will bring about a more prosperous audience. That will increase advertising market and make news outlets independent of the grey money. With competition under real market conditions those outlets that claim and prove their responsibility to the audience by means of subjecting themselves to the rules of self-regulation will be the winners. With the development of still basically non-existent civil society the instinct demand for clean coverage of public affairs will be formulated and imposed on the journalists. For these to be achieved, both the journalists and the audience should be well educated on the best practice of the profession in the West.

* Andrei Richter es director del Moscow Media Law and Policy Institute. Esta es su participación en la reunión anual de la Organization of News Ombudsmen, celebrada en Estambul, Turquía, en septiembre de 2003.

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