MOSCOW, JAN. 16 -- Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, the initiator of glasnost, or openness, reacted furiously today to media criticism of his handling of the Lithuanian crisis and proposed a suspension "for a few months" of the country's liberal new press law.
Gorbachev bitterly attacked the country's more independent newspapers, radio stations and television programs, some of which have charged him with brutality in Lithuania and the other two Soviet Baltic republics, Latvia and Estonia. He was especially angered by an article in the weekly Moscow News, which accused him of "criminal" behavior.
Although Gorbachev backed down on his proposal to suspend the press law after some Soviet lawmakers expressed outrage, the legislature did pass a vague resolution to have its leadership and committee on glasnost examine "measures on ensuring objectivity" in the press.
Gorbachev came to power six years ago following decades of ironclad state control of all media and public discourse, and he gradually created the foundations of a freer, if not wholly independent, press. His proposal today underscored how decisively he has shifted to a more hard-line position in recent months.
After Gorbachev's speech, his second emotional performance in the legislature in as many days, one lawmaker, Ukrainian journalist Alla Yaroshinskaya, stood in the chamber and shouted, "What is happening to our glasnost?" Another legislator, Yuri Karyakin, angered Gorbachev by saying, "The first time we 'suspended' the freedom of the press was in 1917," the year of the Bolshevik Revolution.
Gorbachev, said legislator Yuri Afanasyev, "is the initiator of reform who is in danger of becoming its executioner."
The official television news program "Vremya," which usually shows most of Gorbachev's speeches in full, did not even mention the Kremlin leader's proposal tonight. And following the program -- at the order of the legislature -- state television boradcast a 10-minute documentary defending the army's storming of the Vilnius television station Sunday.
With an automatic rifle slung over his shoulder, program host Alexander Nevzorov portrayed the events as the military's "valiant" defense of human rights and its troops against violent nationalists.
"I watched the film, and it's full of lies," said Alexander Lyubimov, host of the popular news program "Vzglyad," which has been taken off the air, at least temporarily. "Nevzorov must have some contacts with the KGB and maybe they called him in to help their case. At least that's what it looked like."
Although the official account of the assault in Lithuania -- which cited "appeals" for help from a shadowy, pro-Moscow Communist "salvation committee" -- reminded many here of the violent Soviet incursions into Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968, the new press and information climate in the Soviet Union weakens the analogies somewhat.
There is no longer a monopoly on the written word or video image. Even as Tass, the official news agency, and "Vremya" put out the official line blaming the Lithuanian government for "provoking" the violence in Vilnius, newspapers, radio stations and even television programs have provided reporting and commentary sharply contradicting the Kremlin's version.
On the morning of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia 22 years ago, the only way Soviet citizens heard even remotely accurate reports was by listening to foreign shortwave radio reports. But just hours after the violence in Vilnius, thousands of protesters gathered near Moscow's Red Square, saying they had heard the news on two new independent radio stations, the Echo of Moscow and Russian Radio. The latter is sponsored by the legislature of the Russian republic and Russian President Boris Yeltsin.
Stories on Lithuania in the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda have run under photographs of bloodied Lithuanians and such headlines as "Tbilisi, Baku, Vilnius: What's Next?" and "The Iron Argument: Tanks." The paper, published under the aegis of the Young Communist League, also printed an interview today with former interior minister Vadim Bakatin -- who was fired in December -- in which he called the assault in Vilnius "an overnight putsch."
"The generals had no right to send in the tanks on the call of any committee, no matter how loudly it screams," Bakatin said, making it clear why hard-liners wanted to replace him with Boris Pugo, the former Latvian KGB chief.
Literaturnaya Gazeta, a literary journal that printed endless attacks on dissident writers during the 1970s, is now openly defiant of authority. This week it published on the front page the names of the 14 people killed in Vilnius, an appeal for negotiations and a blistering editorial demanding to know if the army has taken control of the country.
In Lithuania itself, the army and the clandestine pro-Moscow National Salvation Committee have shut down all newspapers except the independent daily Respublica. The paper is publishing a half-million copies a day in Lithuanian and 100,000 in Russian with headlines accusing "Red Fascists" of attacking the democratic government. Although Vilnius television is off the air, a pro-independence station in Kaunas, the former capital, continues to broadcast.
The media revolution is not merely one of new means of information. It also represents a change in national psychology. And it was Gorbachev's policy that began it.
"Not only has the system of censorship broken down, the totalitarian core of frightened silence in people's souls has been smashed. They will not and cannot be silent," said Yuri Shchekoshikin, a columnist for Literaturnaya Gazeta and a member of the Soviet legislature.
"The Communist Party and the conservative state organs can control some things but not all the independent papers, radio stations and even television programs that have evolved. Ten or even five years ago, if this had happened, there would be the official line, and that would have been it. Now the only way they can shut us up is if they finally decide to go all the way and arrest us all, destroy us. And in the end, I think that is impossible."
The purveyors of the official line still have considerable power. Tass fills the columns of provincial newspapers, while "Vremya" reaches nearly 100 million viewers and faces no competition in its 9 p.m. time slot.
But both Tass and "Vremya" now face independent rivals. The news agency Interfax, which opened last year, provides consistently accurate information and often has access that foreigners rarely can manage. This week, Interfax not only provided full reports from the Baltic republics but also reported a day in advance that Alexander Bessmertnykh would become foreign minister.
Gostelradio, the government's broadcasting authority, evicted Interfax from its building last week in an attempt to shut down the news service, but a day later it found new sponsors and was pumping out of facsimile machines all over Moscow.
"The old organs of control simply cannot keep us down anymore," said Mikhail Kommissar, the director of Interfax. "The old means no longer work. Tass and 'Vremya' take people for idiots when they put out all that bilge. But people don't believe any of it anymore."
Television is a more complicated case. Asked why he banned "Vzglyad," Gostelradio chief Leonid Kravchenko said, "Television should not have any extremes, left or right." Asked who decides what constitutes an extreme opinion, Kravchenko said, "I do."
But even while "Vremya" has broadcast reports on Lithuania completely in keeping with the Kremlin line, a fast-paced late-night news show, "Television Service News" (TSN), has infuriated Kravchenko by showing gruesome footage of the killings in Vilnius.
It is not always easy for TSN. Clearly under pressure from Gostelradio, the show's host, Tatyana Mitkova, subtly undercut the official version of events by showing Pugo's testimony in the Soviet legislature and saying: "Unfortunately, this is all the information TSN has found it possible to provide."
Another TSN host, Dmitri Kisilev, said Kravchenko or one of his deputies previews the program's videotapes every night.
Just before signing off Tuesday night, Mitkova said to her viewers, "I hope we will meet again."