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FREE PRESS IN SOVIET UNION?

"The press and other mass media are free . . . censorship of the mass media is forbidden."

So declares a new law passed by the Supreme Soviet legislature. Without doubt, the law is a giant step in the right direction, an enhancement of the free speech principle which has become a hallmark in determining relative freedom in a society.But before the Soviet people begin looking for a flood of new newspapers and magazines, a host of questions must be answered and related problems resolved.

First and foremost is the issue of printing materials, especially newsprint. The Soviet government controls all paper mills and the supply of newsprint and other materials needed to publish newspapers. Looking at other media presents similar problems since the government controls all radio and television stations.

However, the new law does lay some important basic groundwork by establishing procedures for creating media outlets and specifying journalistic rights.

They include the right to attend meetings and be present at the scene of disasters, the right to refuse to prepare reports that go against personal convictions and the right to interview officials.

And the law sets another important journalistic precedent. While publishing state secrets remains forbidden, the person leaking the information, not the person reporting the information would be punished.

Slander and "use of the mass media to interfere in citizens' private lives and to infringe on their honor and dignity" are also forbidden.

Hopefully other changes within the Soviet Union, especially economic reforms permitting introduction of free market ideals, will eventually permit creation of private newspapers and magazines. Time will tell.

For now, the government's simple recognition of free speech rights will have to suffice. The foundation is being laid. It will be up to the people to build upon that foundation.