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TV kept running during the coup

Published Aug. 20, 1991|Updated Oct. 13, 2005

Soviet government turned gray again on Monday _ the coup against Mikhail Gorbachev was announced by a line of men in gray hair wearing gray suits before a gray curtain _ but not entirely monolithic: All this was visible, for the world to see, at a news conference.

The plotters were taking questions.

"They could have made a statement, picked up their papers and left," said Walter Roberts, a former executive of the United States Information Agency (USIA).

"I was amazed how open some of those questions were, including some from the Soviet correspondents, which shows that things have progressed pretty far, and even the new people feel that openness is the way to go."

Opinion was divided _ and tentative _ Monday over just how open Soviet hard-liners can be, even after five years of dealing with reporters under glasnost, or openness.

But observers agreed the post-coup news conference was a signature event _ like the footage of a Soviet tank column rolling down the center lane of a Moscow thoroughfare, with normal traffic proceeding on either side.

"It's not on the traditional list of things when you execute a coup," said Christopher Smart, a Soviet analyst at the Hudson Institute. "One: Dispatch tanks. Two: Declare a state of emergency. Three: Call a news conference.

"These people realize they have some publics to answer to."

A Soviet journalist disagreed. "It's just camouflage," said Vladimir Voina, a longtime Soviet editor now at the Foundation for American Communications in Los Angeles. "They want to create some air of legitimacy for this government while it has no legitimacy."

Voina contended the conference was intended to finesse foreigners, when in fact the new government came down hardest on Soviet media. Moscow's only independent TV channel was kept off the air Monday, and the official government channels began their day with solemn classical music, an old warm-up for drastic news.

Recitations of the new edicts were then laced into a report on the tranquil married life of a popular football star.

The feisty newspapers and magazines that sprouted under glasnost also were ordered shut. Only official government newspapers would be permitted to publish, acting Soviet President Gennady Yanayev said at the news conference, "because the country is facing a crisis and many mass media have played a certain role in this."

Yet foreign reporters encountered no immediate barriers either in collecting or spreading the news. And even official Soviet TV broadcast Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin's appeal for a general strike _ albeit a half-hour into the evening news.

"The clock can be turned back, but it can never be turned back completely," said Roberts, who has long linked democratic reform to technological advances. Totalitarian government is too easy to subvert, the reasoning goes, in a world of photocopiers, fax machines, VCRs and computers.

And, in fact, according to Associated Press, by Monday night journalists at two reformist newspapers, Moskovksy Komsomolets and Kuranty, were photocopying print-outs of their stories for posting throughout Moscow after being turned away by state-run printers.

In addition, most Soviet citizens can hear radio broadcasts _ including any calls to action from Yeltsin _ on the BBC World Service and Radio Liberty, the Voice of America service devoted to the Soviet Union. Jamming kept out 90 percent of their short-wave broadcasts until 1988, when glasnost cleared the airwaves.

"People were listening to Radio Liberty yesterday," said George Jacobs, a former engineer at the Voice of America. "And a lot more of them will be listening today."


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