Russia turns up heat on media

SUN JOURNAL

Repression: Threats against reporters and the government's closure of a television network are the latest actions to frighten and frustrate journalists.

January 27, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - For many of this nation's best journalists, it's becoming increasingly difficult to practice their craft.

A popular news anchor, who stood up to the Kremlin in the Soviet era, says the government's closure of the nation's last independent television network is the last straw: She's calling it quits. A radio journalist who covered both of Russia's brutal wars in Chechnya lives in exile in Prague because he says official hostility makes it impossible for him to work in Russia. A newspaper reporter renowned for her work in Chechnya has been receiving death threats for months, and no arrests have been made.

And in newsrooms and broadcast studios around Russia, reporters are reluctant to pursue stories that they know will draw the wrath of the government.

"Journalism has turned into a profession of scared people," says Sergei Parkhomenko, the 37-year- old editor in chief of Zhurnal, a new weekly newsmagazine. "At the majority of editorial offices working in Russia, there is no need to put pressure on them. They are ready to obey commands that have not even been given."

`Crude, totally unnecessary'

Last week, government officials abruptly switched off the signal on TV6, a television network owned by Boris A. Berezovsky, a tycoon critical of President Vladimir V. Putin. The Press Ministry revoked the network's license after another company with close Kremlin ties sued under a never-before-invoked law to force TV6 to sell its assets and close its doors.

The move outraged many intellectuals. "It was an ax that struck you straight on the head," says Yasen Zasursky, professor of journalism at Moscow State University. "It was unprofessional, very crude and totally unnecessary."

`Threats are increasing'

But the fate of TV6 is only the most blatant example of what some see as a growing government effort to silence criticism.

A year ago, Anna Politkovskaya, a Novaya Gazeta newspaper reporter, wrote an article about the torture, mutilation and disappearance of a 26-year-old Chechen man while in the custody of Russian Interior Ministry military officers. Prosecutors ordered three arrests in the case, including that of an officer known as "Kadet." But no arrests were ever made.

In the fall, the Moscow newspaper began receiving warnings that "Kadet" was in the city armed with a sniper's rifle.

At the urging of her editors, Politkovskaya fled to Vienna, Austria. But she returned a few weeks ago, she says, because she didn't want to surrender to what she calls "The Power" - the Kremlin, the Russian military and its allies. Today, she is followed everywhere by bodyguards, uses a special secure phone for interviews and leaves for interviews only at night - so it is more difficult to follow her.

Government officials say they are trying to catch whoever is threatening her, but nothing has happened. "The investigation is moving extremely slowly," she says, "and the threats are increasing."

Ready to quit

Svetlana Sorokina, 45, was a young television radical in the late 1980s as the Soviet Union teetered on the edge of collapse. She was among 350 journalists who fled NTV in April for TV6 after the NTV network was taken over by the state-controlled natural gas company, Gazprom, led by Putin's chief of staff.

Sorokina is known for her passionate delivery of the news and occasional acid asides. (She once ridiculed a tape of former President Boris N. Yeltsin's goonish dancing.) And she has repeatedly suffered the wrath of public officials and network executives, undaunted.

But the morning after the closure of TV6 last week, she stood at the Ostankino television complex looking defeated. She told reporters she is ready to quit journalism. There is no place left for her to work, she says.

Andrei Babitsky of Radio Free Europe, who has reported extensively on human rights abuses by Russian troops in Chechnya, may have been the first victim of the shadowy war on the media. Two years ago, Russian troops in Chechnya arrested him and then claimed that they swapped him with rebels for three Russian soldiers. (The implication was that Babitsky was biased toward the Chechens and valuable to them.)

After Babitsky's release a few weeks later, he said he suspected that he was simply handed over to Chechens allied with Moscow to intimidate and discredit him.

Part of trend

Babitsky sees a parallel between his ordeal and TV6's demise. "These are just different stages of the same course of action," he says. "I was probably there in the most painful period, when the authorities were just starting to get control of information."

Today, the 37-year-old broadcaster lives in self-imposed exile in Prague, capital of the Czech Republic, where he delivers commentaries for Radio Free Europe. He is trying to get permission from Russian authorities to return to Chechnya and work as a reporter again. But that may be impossible. Putin called him a "traitor" in one newspaper interview.

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