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Media : Human-Rights Journal Finds Survival Hard in New Russia : Before glasnost, the newspaper thrived underground. Now it lives hand to mouth and grant to grant, rescued by donations from abroad.

March 28, 1995|EMILY HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MOSCOW — The weekly Express-Khronika, a leading voice for human rights in Russia and a trailblazer in the era of glasnost, is struggling to survive.

Founded in 1987 as an underground, or samizdat, publication, the newspaper has tracked and exposed routine and extraordinary human rights violations throughout the former Soviet Union.

"This type of paper is unique," said Alexander B. Petrov, an associate with Human Rights Watch/Helsinki in Moscow, which often cites Express-Khronika in its reports. "I've never seen a regularly published paper like it."

But the Feb. 17 issue carried a headline warning: "This Issue of Express-Khronika May Be the Last," and, because of money problems, the threat remains.

Editor Alexander P. Podrabinek asked the staff to take vacations while he began to scour domestic and international circles for a patron.

Express-Khronika's pause in publication came at a time when much of the world has been re-evaluating relations with Russia in the wake of human rights violations committed in the breakaway republic of Chechnya, where Moscow's armies have tried to quash the rebellion.

But among most Muscovites, other emotions have edged out concerns for human rights. Opinion surveys show that fear of crime, including mistrust of people from Chechnya and elsewhere in the Caucasus region, surpasses humanitarian concerns.

Neo-fascist activity is on the rise, economic corruption is epidemic, and many Russians regard President Boris N. Yeltsin's attempts to expand police powers as necessary, even overdue.

All this, supporters say, is why Express-Khronika must be kept alive.

"A foundation or individual who supports Express-Khronika is also supporting the liberal and democratic processes in our country and the development of civil society," wrote Sergei A. Kovalev, Russia's human rights commissioner, in an open letter of support for the paper.

Kovalev also praised Express-Khronika's coverage of Chechnya over the last four years, during which one of the paper's correspondents there was murdered.

Express-Khronika's main problem is money. For the last five years it has been at least partially supported by foreign foundations. When word of its temporary closure got out, a donor contributed enough to publish a few more issues.

Then on Monday, the U.S.-based National Endowment for Democracy, which has supported the paper in the past, disclosed that it had approved another $75,000, enough to publish Express-Khronika for a year. But Podrabinek knows well that grant money is short-term life support.

"Freedom doesn't resolve economic problems," wrote Podrabinek, 41, a former political prisoner.

Advertisers aren't interested, he says, and he doubts that money from a Russian businessman would come free of editorial strings. It is an open secret that media outlets here are loath to cross their funding source--be it the government or a private bank--and will publish articles for pay.

"This newspaper is not on somebody's side. That's why we lost it," said Vitaly Korotich, former editor of Ogonyok, a magazine that tested press limits during the Soviet era.

Daily electronic dissemination of the paper began as an experiment in September with equipment from the Eurasia Foundation, and Podrabinek hopes that embassies and news agencies will agree to pay for subscriptions. But to reach people without computers, supporters say, the printed paper must continue.

The constant struggle for money led Podrabinek to consider leaving Express-Khronika for work at a better-funded paper. Then an article in which he called Russian soldiers in Chechnya murderers was sharply rebuked in another publication, reminding him that Express-Khronika was probably the only medium that would have published his viewpoint.

"To say that our soldiers are killing children there, that our fliers are decimating the population, that's not allowed," he said. "You can lump the blame on politicians, you can blame the generals. But to blame the specific person who is doing it, that's not OK. It's not patriotic."

Alexei Simonov, head of the Glasnost Defense Fund that seeks to protect journalists, believes he may be able to find a Russian sponsor who will not infringe on Express-Khronika's editorial department. But he acknowledges that interest in the human rights-oriented paper is not strong enough to make it self-sufficient.

"This paper doesn't deal in scandal," he said. "Russian journalists traditionally take one fact and build a whole emotional essay. This paper takes facts and lets them speak for themselves."

Podrabinek says it was easy enough to fund the samizdat version of Express-Khronika. Early issues, spread surreptitiously among friends, were simply two or three typed sheets announcing and reviewing various events. Paper and other costs came out of the pockets of Podrabinek and his colleagues.

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