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World Press Freedom Review
2001 World Press Freedom Review
In Russia, the two major threats to freedom of the media that marked the first year in power of President Vladimir Putin continued in 2001. First, regional media enjoy little freedom and operate under immense pressure from local authorities. Abuses of media freedom in the regions range from thinly veiled threats to libel suits to violent assaults on journalists. On many occasions there are no independent media to speak of; the majority of outlets depend on financial support provided to them by local business interests or political leaders.
The other threat that looms over Russiaís media landscape is the more subtle machinations of the federal government. The one pattern that stands out is what appears to be a deliberate attempt by the Kremlin to consolidate its control over all media in Russia, both by taking over outlets that operate in the capital and on a nation-wide basis, and by slowly shifting power over the regional media from local bosses to the federal government. President Putin has issued decrees with the intention of enhancing the stateís ability to control information and the authorities have effectively shut down most reporting about its military engagement in Chechnya. Little of the alleged atrocities reach the Russian public; the army arrests critical journalists and makes sure the media only hears the official side of the war.
In short, the negative trends that began under President Putin after he came to power have continued, if not been exacerbated. In the past year, much like the year before, most international attention focused on the protracted struggle of Media-Most, an independent media conglomerate, and its efforts to retain control over its outlets - a struggle that it eventually lost to the government.
The owner and founder of Media-Most, Vladimir Gusinsky, remains in exile, hiding from fraud charges launched by Russian public prosecutors, and he could only watch as state-linked gas company Gazprom dismantled his media empire. In an April board meeting, the gas companyís media arm effectively gained control over Gusinskyís independent national television channel NTV, replacing the channelís management and appointing several of its own staff to key positions in the company.
A few days later, Gazprom, together with an individual shareholder in Media-Most-owned publishing house Sem Dnei, announced that it would no longer finance the daily Sevodnya, a decision that effectively closed down the newspaper. The following day, Sem Dnei said that it had fired the editorial staff of the weekly magazine Itogi.
The takeover sparked an outcry both in Russia and abroad. In Moscow thousands of people took to the streets to protest, and at first, journalists with NTV refused to leave their offices. The president said it was purely a financial settlement and not an issue of freedom of the media, following the line of Gazprom, the main creditor of Media-Most, which said that it had taken the steps due to financial mismanagement, lack of profits and Gusinsky's default on loans owed to the gas giant. Even though there have been reports of financial irregularities at Media-Most, many commentators point to other facts that make Gazpromís explanation seem less credible.
First, the state has a 38 per cent interest in Gazprom and all the Media-Most outlets have provided critical coverage of the government. As a result the company has in the past been harassed and pressured by authorities on many occasions. Another telling example is that Itogi was making a profit when Gazprom sacked its journalists. As well, NTVís competitors, state-controlled ORT and RTR, have remained conspicuously free of such pressure, and when it comes to the issue of financial irregularities it appears that a double standards is being applied.
According to a report by the Moscow Times, two investigations carried out by the Russian Audit Chamber showed similar examples of financial misconduct at both ORT and RTR; however, tax investigators did not pursue the cases.
The takeover of NTV by Gazprom leaves all national television channels, either indirectly or directly, in the hands of the government. Television is by far the most influential medium in Russia and constitutes a formidable political instrument, which also explains the governmentís desire to control it. In August, President Putin signed a decree establishing a new monopoly; a state-owned Russian Television and Radio Broadcasting Network which will control the broadcasting of all television signals in Russia. Previously this had been the work of two different ministries. Some journalists have pointed out the similarity of this institution to the old Soviet Gosteleradio, which used to control all national networks and broadcasting facilities.
These measures are part of a wider campaign by the administration to reassert control over what it has said is Russiaís "threatened" information sphere. In September 2000, the president signed a decree called the "Doctrine of the Information Security" which sets out vaguely defined threats to Russiaís information sphere and ways to combat them. Parts of that document talks about the need to increase the governmentís influence over the media. Last yearís developments have provided evidence that this is not merely rhetoric but appears to be part of a wider campaign by the government to rein in the independent media. After the NTV debacle, ORT, Russiaís nominally public television station also came under closer government control.
Previously, ORT was controlled by an influential businessman called Boris Berezovsky, who had close connections in the Kremlin under former President Boris Yeltsin. Today however, just like Gusinsky, he is in exile, wanted for fraud charges back home, something he blames on the fact that ORT had become more critical of the administration. In February, Russian media reported that Berezovsky had sold his stake in ORT, 49 per cent, to a company belonging to another businessman, Roman Abramovich. Abramovich is close to the government and reportedly handed over the shares to the Kremlin in return for lucrative oil contracts, allowing the government to put its cronies on the stationís executive board.
In another blow to Berezovsky, in late November, an appeal court upheld the decision by another court to liquidate independent Russian television channel TV-6 in which the businessman has a majority stake. The liquidation of the television channel was part of a case initiated in September against its parent company MNVK under a law stipulating that companies cannot run deficits for more than two years. The lawsuit was filed by LUKoil-Garant, a company with interest in TV-6 and with close connections to the Kremlin. Many commentators believe the decision was politically motivated and that the law is being applied selectively, pointing at similarities to the NTV case. Many of NTVís journalists went to work for TV-6 after Gazprom took over the station.
While allies of the government say these measures are strictly related to financial matters, critics say they are examples of a government that is fundamentally suspicious of a free media and other elements of civil society. In addition to financial pressure, journalism also continues to be among the more dangerous professions in Russia.
There were a number of attacks reported in the past year. On 11 January, in the city of Kimry in the Tver Region, unidentified persons fired several shots at the windows of the apartment of Fedor Penkin, editor-in-chief of local newspaper Volzhskoye Vremya. Penkin believes the incident is related to a series of articles on alleged police involvement in the city's drug trade. In addition, the newspaper has been subject to several arbitrary financial inquires by the authorities and retail traders have refused to sell Volzhskoye Vremya. On 7 February, two masked individuals broke into the office of Vozrozhdenie Respubliki in Karachai-Cherkessia and started to beat the newspaperís editor-in-chief, Rashid Khatuev, and head editor Vladimir Panov. The attackers also destroyed office equipment. Khatuev was hospitalised after the attack. The newspaper has published articles critical of the President of Karachai-Cherkessia, Vladimir Semyonov.
On 10 March, K.E. Koktomov, a reporter with RTR, was assaulted in St. Petersburg. The unknown attacker hit Koktomov on the head with a heavy object and took money and documents from the journalist. Koktomov was hospitalised as a result of the attack. The journalist claims the authorities have deliberately slowed down the investigation into the attack.
On March 13, Dmitriy Zapoliski, presenter of the programme "Babylon" which airs on regional television, was attacked while walking down St. Petersburg's Academician Pavlov street. The attacker was later on apprehended. On 28 June, Igor Sinyakevich, a Belarussian journalist with the daily Novye Izvestiya, was attacked in Moscow. As he was walking home, two unidentified men approached Sinyakevich and demanded money. When Sinyakevich refused they stabbed him. Friends of the journalist say the attack may be related to Sinyakevichís professional activities claiming that the assailants, even though they demanded money, did not take any valuables from the journalist. On 30 November, Ildar Zhandaryov, a journalist with TV-6 was attacked by three unidentified men who beat and robbed him. According to Zhandaryov, the attackers made references to the television show that he hosts, saying that the programme had upset people. There was also a journalist murdered last year.
On 18 September, Eduard Markevich, 29, editor and publisher of Novy Reft in the town of Reftinskey, Sverdlovsk Region, was found dead after being shot in the back. Novy Reft was often critical of local officials and Markevich had been threatened before, colleagues said. Another assassination attempt failed. On 2 October unknown assailants sprayed poisonous gas through the key hole of Aleksei Frolovís flat. Frolov is the editor-in-chief of the weekly Novaya Gazetaís Ryazan bureau. He was in the flat with his wife, mother and friends at the time of the attack. No one was injured.
In addition to these attacks, journalist have been threatened by politicians and physically attacked by police. On 21 March, Olga Kitova, a deputy of the Duma of Belgorod Oblast and reporter for Belgorodskaya Pravda, was beaten into unconsciousness by police officers. Commentators believe she was targeted in response to a number of articles published in Belgorodskaya Pravda critical of the Belgorod prosecutorís decision to initiate a case of sexual assault against a group of local students. Ironically, the authorities have launched an investigation against the journalist, claiming she insulted and used force against the police officers that beat her. She was later on detained and charged with five criminal offences, including slander and obstruction of justice.
On 7 June, journalists with television channel NTV were threatened by the mayor of Vladivostock, Yuri Kopylov, while filming him during an official function at the cityís airport. Kopylov ordered his bodyguard to stop the news crew from filming. On 30 August, the office of TVK, a regional television station in the city of Lipetsk, was raided by a group of armed men. Reportedly, the raid was part of an effort by one of the stationís shareholder companies, Energuia, to change management at the station, something it had been barred from doing by a court. The Chief Executive of Energuia is close to regional governor Oleg Korolyov who has been criticised by the television station.
Other means are also used to limit critical reporting in Russia. Last year, confiscation of newspapers, tax raids and the use of courts were preferred weapons deployed against journalists. Even though such measures are more common in the regions, where the media has much less freedom, such incidents also occurred in Moscow.
On 30 January, the Moscow municipal court upheld an appeal by Russian Prosecutor-General Vladimir Ustinov against NTV and the anchorman of its Itogi programme, Yevgeniy Kiselev. Ustinov had asked that NTV be required to retract allegations it had made on 9 July and 17 September 2000 concerning former manager of the presidentís affairs Pavel Borodin and his alleged role in the appointment of Ustinov. And in the ongoing harassment of Media-Most which eventually led up to the above-described takeover by Gazprom, 20 men from the prosecutorís office and the FSB security police, successor to the KGB, sealed computers at the companyís Moscow bank, Image Bank on 7 February. Journalists with Media-Most said the act was done in order to make it impossible to pay several outletsí bills. Staff with Media-Most also said the company had been raided on some 30 occasions since May 2000.
Altogether, international coverage tended to focus more on developments in the capital, while the situation is much more dreary for regional outlets. At the beginning of the year, on 18 January, police seized 50,000 copies of independent daily Kazanskoye Vremya in the Republic of Tatarstan without providing an explanation for the action. The issue contained a number of articles criticising the republican administration. The newspaperís editorial board links the incident with preparations for presidential elections in the republic. On 7 June, police seized all copies of Vladivostok daily Dalyokaya Okrayina from the post office as the newspaper was about to be distributed, failing to present documents in support of their actions. The newspaper has in the past published articles critical of candidate Sergey Darkin.
Even though not as common as in other former Soviet Republics, criminal defamation suits are brought against journalists in Russia as well. On 11 March, it was reported that Elvira Mezhenna, chief editor of the City Television channel in Yaroslavl Oblast would face charges of criminal defamation and libel. The charges are based on remarks she made in an editorial comment in May 2000, in which she claimed that Yaroslavl Oblast Governor Anatolii Lisitsyn made use of his power to appoint federal level officials and that these officials never make decisions against the will of Oblast authorities.
On 21 June, the Vladivostok municipal prosecutorís office of filed criminal charges against Viktor Sukhanov, editor of weekly newspaper Konkurent. Officials searched the offices of the newspaper and confiscated a computer. The charges were brought by the deputy president of the regional arbitration court, Liubov Kuznetsova, and stem from an article in Konkurent detailing the privatisation process of a Vladivostock shipping company. The author of the article, whose name was not revealed, accused local judges of bribery and lack of objectivity. The prosecutor decided to charge Sukhanov because the article was published under a pseudonym and the newspaper refused to reveal who had written the article.
A telling example of the Russian authoritiesí deep-seated suspicion of journalists is the way in which they have dealt with the media in connection to the conflict in Chechnya, where the Russian army is engaged in war with secessionist fighters.
This is the second conflict in the region. The first, which began in 1994, ended in a 1996 cease-fire agreement perceived by many Russianís as humiliating. It is perhaps because of this that the administration seems so adamant about not losing this time, an attitude which in turn has severely curtailed the ability of journalists to report on the brutal conflict. Reporters that refuse to present the official line and focused on alleged atrocities committed by Russian troops have been arrested or denied access.
On 21 February, Russian troops detained Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist with the Russian daily Novaya Gazeta while she was on assignment in Chechnya, claiming she had broken the rules laid out for reporters working in the region. A spokesperson for the Russian army said that Politkovskaya, though properly accredited to work in Chechnya, had broken the rules by travelling there without registering her whereabouts in a military press office. She was later on released. In October, however, she had to flee to Vienna after receiving a number of death threats connected to her reporting from Chechnya.
Russian soldiers, presumably inspired by their officersí contempt for the media, have also attacked journalists. On 2 March, two drunken Russian Federal Forces servicemen beat journalist Aleksandr Stepanov, the RIA-Novosti correspondent in Khankala. The soldiers attacked Stepanov after he had refused to give them his satellite telephone. The journalist suffered several injuries, including a broken jaw.
Aside from such abuses, the Russian army has taken measures to prevent any reporting it deems sensitive from reaching the public eye. On 26 July, journalists based in Khankala, the Russian military headquarters for Chechnya, were told by army officials that when covering the conflict in addition to obtaining permission they would have to be accompanied by officials from the Interior Ministry's press centre. The army also said it would also set up its own broadcasting facilities to provide alternative coverage of the conflict.
Reportedly, the decision was taken after Armed Forces Chief Anatoly Kvashnin criticised journalists for only reporting on negative aspects of the conflict between the Russian army and Chechen separatists. On the same day as the announcement, a group of journalists who tried to travel from Khankala to the city of Grozny to meet representatives of the Chechen government were stopped by soldiers at a checkpoint and told they could not pass unless accompanied by a press official. When asked who made the ultimate decision on the movement of journalists, Fedor Asalkhanov, head of the Russian Interior Ministry's press centre for the North Caucasus, said, "we usually agree on this [with journalists]. If our interests coincide, then we go together with journalists and prepare material on the relevant subject."
The attitude displayed by Asalkhanov is representative of the authoritiesí behaviour when it comes to dealing with the media. Even though the state is not as repressive as in many of the former Soviet countries, pressure on the media remains a very real threat to critical media outlets. In addition, the reliance of many media outlets on economic sponsorship, either through state subsidies or by businesses, has had a damaging effect on editorial independence. And even though fewer journalists were murdered last year than in 2000, attacks remain common against critical journalists. These developments, when taken together with the apparent end of independent national television, provide further evidence that all is not good in Russia. Unfortunately, last yearís developments present little hope that things will improve anytime soon.
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