In Russia, media foresee losing free press fight

Arrest of network boss shows where Putin stands, TV host says

June 18, 2000|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - After three grim days in a nasty prison, media magnate Vladimir A. Gusinsky woke up in his own bed yesterday, a new martyr prepared to fight the Kremlin until the end for freedom of the press in Russia.

Andrei Babitsky, martyred earlier this year in the same cause, naturally sympathizes. But he fears the end is near, he said yesterday, and the media are on the losing side.

"Today, the words of a journalist no longer have any significance," said Babitsky, a Radio Liberty correspondent who was arrested in January while covering the war in Chechnya. "It's a very hard feeling."

Last winter, the pressure applied to Babitsky over his reporting generated enormous outrage here and in the West. To outsiders hoping the clampdown was an aberration, it appeared the Kremlin was sensitive to the uproar and would not wish to set off another such controversy over freedom of the press. But last week, it started again.

"Of course they learned a lesson," said Viktor Shenderovich, host of a political commentary program called "All in All" that is broadcast on Gusinsky's NTV television. "They learned you can have the security services kidnap a famous journalist and no one will be punished."

Shenderovich said the Babitsky and Gusinsky cases help answer the question that has been heard in the West ever since Boris N. Yeltsin resigned the presidency in December: Who is Vladimir V. Putin?

"Putin is playing the same game he was playing with Babitsky," Shenderovich said. "It is the KGB mentality. He can't imagine reacting to the situation in any other way."

Such a mentality, Babitsky said, looks at every situation as black and white, as a problem to be solved in isolation without regard for the wider ramifications - a tactical, not a strategic way of thinking. He predicts that the pressure on the media will only intensify.

"I don't think there is much of a prospect under the current authorities for an independent mass media," he said.

Conversations about freedom of the press these days summon forth more and more expressions that until recently seemed consigned to the past - words like "Soviet-style repression" and "political prosecutions."

Gusinsky, the head of Russia's only independent television station, set out on a fateful path Tuesday, when Russian authorities arrested him on suspicion of embezzling $10 million two years ago in a deal to acquire shares in a St. Petersburg television company.

Gusinsky's Media-Most holding company, based in Moscow, also owns a radio station, news magazine and newspaper, all of which have come under attack by the Kremlin for criticizing Putin and the war in Chechnya. The great majority of informed people here believe that was the real reason Gusinsky was sent off to prison last week.

Vyacheslav A. Nikonov, who runs a Moscow think tank and has been supportive of Putin, said last week that of all of Russia's wealthy businessmen, Gusinsky has the best reputation for clean hands, working in an industry that doesn't offer the opportunity for graft on the scale of the gas and oil industries, which have provided fortunes for several of the other barons known here as oligarchs.

"Any person who has ever read newspapers or watched television," said Nikonov, "is likely to suspect that for the first time since perestroika we are witnessing a politically motivated arrest."

Gusinksy, 47, was held for three days before he was charged Friday afternoon. He was let out of prison about 10 p.m. Friday - after all the reporters waiting outside had gone home - on the promise that he would not leave Moscow. The investigation could last years, if the authorities so desire, keeping Gusinsky tied to Moscow, exerting constant pressure on him.

Babitsky said that his case and Gusinsky's were very similar.

"I think they are directly connected," he said. "In both, guilt doesn't matter at all."

Babitsky, 35, disappeared in mid-January while on a trip to Chechnya, where he angered Moscow by reporting high Russian casualties and extensive violence against civilians. He was arrested by Russian soldiers because he was caught traveling on his own, in violation of Moscow orders banning independent reporting.

He was held in secret for two weeks, with Russian authorities denying they knew anything of his whereabouts. During this time, Babitsky later said, he was beaten and heard the screams of Chechens being tortured.

Eventually, Russian forces announced they were trading Babitsky for Russian soldiers being held hostage, trying to ruin Babitsky's credibility by creating the image he was so valuable to Chechen fighters they were willing to ransom him.

The story was false. Babitsky was handed over to masked men who were actually Chechens working for Moscow. Eventually he escaped his captors, but Babitsky was found with false documents he said his captors gave him. Now he's being prosecuted for carrying those documents.

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