Why no news
ombudsmen in the CIS,
and what is being done to change it?
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
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
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.
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.
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
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?
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.
Richter es director del
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.