Gagging in Moscow

August 04, 2005

THE RUSSIAN government says it will kick ABC-TV out of the country because Nightline had the effrontery to show an interview with a Chechen rebel leader named Shamil Basayev, who has been behind some of the bloodiest and most humiliating episodes in Russia's war to retain the breakaway republic. And until the network's staff people can get their bags packed, Moscow has ordered all Russian officials to refuse to speak to them. Has Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. signed on as a Kremlin adviser in his spare time?

The Nightline people have pointed out that showing an interview with someone is not an endorsement of that person - especially when that person freely admits he's a terrorist who'll keep killing innocent people as long as Russia keeps killing Chechens. Russia won't win its war by keeping the other side off the air; if anything, the Nightline interview helped show just how death-crazed the Chechen jihadists are.

Expelling a news organization as a matter of national policy is wrong, and it's childish. Russian officials are angry because they've been trying to find Mr. Basayev for years, and because they're also supposedly keeping a sharp eye on the freelance reporter who did find him, Andrei Babitsky. Mr. Babitsky, who usually works for the American-supported Radio Liberty, is fearless, and has infuriated the Kremlin with his reports from Chechnya ever since the war there was rekindled in 1999. Somewhere in Russia's security service, a head or two will roll because of his scoop.

The Kremlin has effectively brought most of the Russian press to heel through intimidation and blackmail; now it's trying to punish a foreign news operation. There's a pattern here, and it's an ugly one.

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