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The Press: Freedom Down

8 minute read

One of the fruits of the Munich Pact has been the growing impatience of democratic statesmen with their own, unregimented, freedom-loving press. This impatience was testily expressed by Britain’s Neville Chamberlain last month while replying to critics in the House of Commons. “It is not,” he lectured, “one of the characteristics of the totalitarian States to foul their own nests!”

British editors who print anti-Munich or anti-Chamberlain opinions were thus pointed at scornfully as nestfoulers. In France, where the journalistic roost is messy indeed because of the old French practice of outright bribes to newspapers, Premier Edouard Daladier was reported to have proposed to his Cabinet specific measures to “correct many of the evils existing under our unrestricted freedom of the press.” Most French papers have accommodated the Government by suppressing the more unpleasant facts about the recent Nazi pogrom. A general toning down of all references to Adolf Hitler & Germany was last week believed to be part of the deal which Frenchman Daladier and German Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop were about to strike in Paris.

The steady strangling of press freedom throughout Europe was further highlighted last week by such items as these:

> In New York arrived a smuggled letter telling of the end of Spyros Vlachos, 29-year-old Greek correspondent. Last summer Reporter Vlachos had the rashness to telephone a dispatch to the New York Times declaring the Cretan revolt was “more serious than the governmental communiqués indicated.” Arrested and blacklisted, he poisoned himself November 14 because he “could no longer stand the loss of liberty in his chosen profession.”

> In London for a “holiday” was Foreign Editor Nicolas Blaedel of Copenhagen’s famed old Berlingske Tidende, who incurred Adolf Hitler’s wrath by reprinting a description of German atrocities from a speech by an English M.P. Next day the paper offered humble apologies for printing an “absolutely incredible” story, sent Blaedel on a long vacation.

> In Germany, the Nazi newsorgan Völkischer Beobachter warned small neighboring nations they would be treated as enemies in any future war unless they eliminated anti-German comment from their press. This was aimed especially at Switzerland, where an unofficial foreign news censorship committee exists. Recently the Belgian Press Association spunkily rejected a suggestion from the Belgian Foreign Office that they set up a similar committee.

> In Eastern Europe, 45 small Hungarian papers were suppressed within the last month, and new laws limited the number of Jews in newspaper jobs. Similar laws are in effect in what is left of Czechoslovakia. In Bulgaria it was announced that no new newspaper can start without permission of a special new Ministry. Lithuania signed a press accord agreeing that the newspapers of each nation will henceforth be “devoid of unfriendly tendencies.”

> In France, a correspondent of New York’s Communist Daily Worker was unable to get cable clearance for a story describing the French general strike as a “success,” although many other stories describing it as a “failure” sped through the cable office. From Manhattan the Worker finally had to phone L’Humanité in Paris for its story, took an ad next day in the decidedly capitalist New York Times to boast about its enterprise.

Grand Pianos. If Adolf Hitler & Benito Mussolini have their way, the newspapers of every nation will be as sternly regimented as their own. In dictator lands the press becomes one big automatic piano with many notes but only one tune, sounding the Government’s praise. As long as it sticks to that its “freedom” is unlimited.

The man who keeps Adolf Hitler’s piano in tune is suave and dexterous Dr. Otto Dietrich, liaison man between the Dictator and the German press. Not well known outside Germany, Dr. Dietrich is one of the very few men who see Hitler almost every day. Each noon in Berlin Dr. Dietrich or an aide receives the principal representatives of the major newspapers of Germany and passes on to them the official interpretation of the news they have already received from the semi-official agency, Deutsches Nachrichten Bureau (D. N. B.). Absences from this conference are easily checked—each newsman has a nameplate on his chair.

The man who plays longest and hardest on the German Press is Dr. Paul Joseph Goebbels, the hot-eyed little clubfoot who is Reichsminister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda. From his offices in the larger German cities, Enlightener Goebbels gives out frequent batches of instructions to local newsmen. Two years ago an editor and reserve army officer named Schwerdtseger was convicted of selling copies of these orders to a foreign writer for $300 and sentenced to life imprisonment (a light sentence). Now each man is called into a separate room, handed a sealed envelope containing the instructions, which he must open, read, and then hand back to the Enlightenment officer. He is forbidden to discuss his instructions even with a fellow-German. Sample instruction: “Articles about the SA and so on, about their military value or their disciplined behavior may not appear. Whoever writes about that or about labor service or about air protection . . . goes immediately into protective custody (Schutzhaft).”*

The hand which thumps the Italian press is that of an oldtime reporter. Benito Mussolini founded Milan’s Popolo d’ltalia, reputedly with the aid of French bribes, in 1914, still writes or dictates many of its editorials. Every night at 10 he telephones Night Editor Giorgio Pini of Popolo to discuss news treatment. When Popolo carries an important article, every other Italian paper is required to reprint the article the following day, with credit.

But the Duce’s paper still lags behind Milan’s Corriere della Sera in circulation, and Fascist newspapers in general do not sell well in Italy. They are too much alike.

Grand Organ. Biggest, oldest and most successful regimented press in the world is that of Soviet Russia There Boss J. Stalin lets trusted underlings do the actual pedal-pumping of a vast organization that includes 9,000 newspapers, 4,000,000 “worker-correspondents,” nearly 40,000,000 subscribers. (Russian population: 170,000,000.) Because it is in effect State-owned and managed, the Russian press functions more smoothly than the German or Italian, though occasionally a prominent editor like Nikolai Bukharin has to be shot (TIME, March 21). Fortnight ago the Russian press got a new big boss.

Comrade Andrei Alexandrovich Zhdanov.

Soviet officials are fond of saying they could have even more newspapers if they could produce more newsprint. The leading Moscow papers Pravda (Truth) and Izvestia (News) limit their circulations to 1,900,000 and 1,600,000 respectively, and print only four to six pages. Since Editor Bukharin of Izvestia was shot, it has been edited by a board like Pravda, and the editors of both papers now consider it safer to remain strictly anonymous.

A unique Soviet institution is the flying brigade of reporters from Moscow or big provincial papers who invade factories and districts, call mass meetings, ask for complaints, hunt out slipshod work and write the whole story for their papers. No factory manager or local official can stop such meetings or forbid the giving of information. Fortnight ago Izvestia scored such a scoop when it revealed a Soviet diaper shortage (TIME, Dec. 5) ; last week Pravda countered with a revelation that the Moscow milk trust was 158,972 quarts behind on its daily deliveries. This kind of grousing is tolerated and even encouraged by Boss Stalin but no Russian paper would even think of criticizing a really basic Soviet policy. The new Soviet Constitution contains specific guarantees of “freedom of speech, freedom of the press,” but adds that these must be exercised “in conformity with the interest of the toilers and in order to strengthen the Socialist system.” The Russian system does not require detailed instructions for editors. Smaller newspapers which unintentionally overstep the party line are called to account by Pravda or Izvestia.

Thousands of so-called Russian “news papers” are, of course, mere house-organs for individual groups and factories, but their prevalence has built up a backlog of journalistic enthusiasm lacking in the Fascist States. Typical letter from a factory correspondent in the daily Ingot, published by the Hammer & Sickle Foundry at Kharkov: “From a spoiler, the most backward worker in the shop, to editor of the section wall newspaper, ‘Bolt’ — this is the road I have traversed as a pupil of our shop paper Ingot — and I am not alone.”

— Not secret were the instructions issued last fortnight to the only Jewish newspaper still published in Germany, Berlin’s Juedische Rundschau. The instructions: print no death notices for four weeks.

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