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Free to Speak? Establishing a Free Press in Russia

Free to Speak? Establishing a Free Press in Russia

The Conflict

Freedom of speech and of the press became more widely practiced in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Russian media began to actively report on the government and to question its actions. When President Vladimir Putin succeeded Boris Yeltsin into office, he implemented restrictions on the media that greatly reduced their freedoms. Putin also began to reinstate government controls over the media and to prosecute media companies and owners who did not comply.

Political

  • A free media raises questions that the Russian government under Vladimir Putin clearly does not want to answer. Putin's attempts to restrict the media's freedoms is an effort to control the information available to the public.
  • The Soviet Union had a common practice of censorship and controlled media. Russia has had very few years of experience with a free press. Putin's efforts to re-establish government control are a return to a tradition much more established than the relatively new rights of free speech.

Legal

  • Russia seized control of the nationwide independent television station NTV, while owner Vladimir Gusinsky fought from Spain to overcome a Russian government request for his extradition on charges of embezzlement, which he claims are false.
  • The Russian government has cracked down on granting reporters access to the war-torn region of Chechnya. Rumors persist that the Russian army was responsibly for reporter Andrey Babitsky's initial capture. When Babitsky was released by Chechen rebels in the neighboring province of Dagestan, Russian officials prosecuted him for not having proper travel documents.

In the most dramatic instance of Russian government moves deemed troubling to freedom of the press, Russia's state-owned Gazprom natural gas firm on April 3, 2001, seized formal control of independent nationwide television network, NTV, from shareholder and media magnate Vladimir Gusinsky. He witnessed the takeover from Spain, where he was fighting a simultaneous Russian government request for extradition on embezzlement charges. On April 19, 2001, Spain's High Court rejected the extradition request, deeming the alleged offenses not crimes in Spain. Free to leave Spain, Gusinsky flew to Israel on April 25, 2001. Russian prosecutors filed a new arrest warrant with Interpol on April 22, this time alleging that Gusinsky was involved in money laundering, and voiced their intentions to eventually see Gusinsky face charges in a Russian courtroom. The loss of independence by Gusinsky's NTV appears more serious than other moves by the government of President Vladimir Putin against independent newspapers and magazines because NTV has a nationwide reach, and most Russians now get their news from television rather than from print media.

Commenting on the Russian government moves against Gusinsky, Elaine Monaghan of Reuters reported that the U.S. State Department stated on April 18, 2001, that Gusinsky's Media-Most media holdings had faced "extraordinary pressures from law enforcement and other elements of the Russian government," which "lead reasonable observers …to the conclusion that the campaign against Media-Most is politically motivated." The State Department also indicated that it was "extremely troubled" by the takeover of Gusinsky's NTV independent national television network as a sign that freedom of speech is under assault by the Russian government. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and other Western governments also voiced misgivings about the takeover of NTV and other negative democratization trends in Russia. Responding to the U.S. State Department's remarks, the Russian Foreign Ministry rejected the suggestion of political involvement in the Media-Most events, stating that they were, according to Transitions Online in "Russia: Gusinky Free, Independent Media Not" (April 18-23, 2001), "purely commercial and financial" affairs and did "not have anything to do with freedom of speech" in Russia.

Compared to the revelatory aspects of former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's media glasnost (openness) policy, and the free media-building period of Russian President Boris Yeltsin's rule, President Vladimir Putin has appeared less disposed to support freedom of the press. Major negative incidents have included the Putin government's clampdown on press coverage of the Chechnya conflict; the military treatment of war reporter Andrey Babitsky; the harassment of media magnate Vladimir Gusinsky and the seizure of control over NTV; the reaction of the Putin government to press reports of the sinking of the submarine Kursk; and Putin's promulgation of a restrictive Information Security Doctrine. The pressure on the press exerted by the Putin government has only been weakly challenged by the courts. Although the Russian constitution upholds freedoms of the press and speech, courts have seldom justified their decisions on the basis of these principles. Existing laws dealing with the press provide piecemeal protection and are contradictory, so that courts sometimes rule to uphold press freedoms and at other times rule against the press even in cases that appear similar.

The Russian government owns about 150 of the 550 television stations in Russia and about one-fifth of the 12,000 registered newspapers and periodicals, but among these are the major national television broadcasters and print media. Many private media are too dependent on government subsidies or financiers. There is a high concentration of private media ownership, and these owners often have used their media holdings for their own commercial purposes, harming the integrity of the press. Nonetheless, the private media has functioned somewhat independently of the government, breaking a state monopoly on information. To the extent that private media are suppressed, the opportunity for the emergence of a freer press is constrained.

Among the owners of major media are state-controlled energy companies Gazprom, Lukoil, and United Energy Systems, the Russian Central Bank, and the state-controlled Sberbank. Oligarchs Vladimir Potanin and Roman Abramovich are major media owners. The holdings of oligarchs Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky, who are out of favor with Putin, are dwindling. Two major foreign media groups include the Independent Media Group and Storyfirst Communications. Berezovsky retains control of TV-6, a small Moscow television station, and Gusinsky retains TNT, a cable company that reaches about one-half of the population, mainly with entertainment programming. After NTV was taken over by Gazprom, many of NTV's employees quit or were fired and went to work at TV-6 or TNT.

Putin's viewpoint that information should be shaped by and serve state interests was set forth in an Information Security Doctrine he promulgated in September 2000. In discussing the Doctrine, Putin's media advisor, Gleb Pavlovsky, in September 2000, stated that freedom of the press in Russia had become a means for the degradation and destruction of society, blaming oligarchs Gusinsky and Berezovsky, among others. He endorsed government efforts against them but also warned that foreign media with non-Russian agendas might try to purchase their media holdings. In an address to editors of mass media in January 2001, Putin stated that the Russian state needed a unified viewpoint from the media, and would continue to ban "illegitimate and extremist ideas." Most recently, in his state of the federation address to the legislature on April 3, 2001, Putin devoted most attention to bolstering free enterprise and some attention to pension, health, and other social issues. He did not, however, mention human rights as a priority concern for the year, and dismissed the conflict in Chechnya as posing no human rights issues.

Historical Background

The main negative trends in press freedom in Russia are exemplified by censorship of the Chechnya conflict—including the government's treatment of reporter Andrey Babitsky—the harassment of Gusinsky's Media-Most independent media firm, and the promulgation of a repressive Information Security Doctrine by the government. While the negative trends began in the latter years of the Yeltsin era, they appeared to receive state sanction by the Putin regime.

Russian media became more vulnerable to manipulation with the consolidation of ownership over major media by a few magnates, or "oligarchs," and finance, banking, and energy firms in the mid-1990s. This consolidation did not appear at first to adversely affect press freedoms, as exemplified by the brave and forthright coverage by some media of the first Russian conflict in its breakaway Chechnya region in 1993-96. A dark side emerged, however, with major media manipulation by the oligarchs in support of Yeltsin's re-election in June-July 1996. Increasingly, it appeared that independent and forthright voices in the media were being stilled by media owners seeking to use their control to advance their own agendas. In addition, media investigations into crime and corruption became more difficult, as criminals and corrupt officials gained increasing power and moved with impunity to kill and harass reporters. Both the 1996 presidential race and the December 1999 State Duma election were typified by media bias and government manipulation of state-owned media, according to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and other observers. In the case of the Duma races, government-owned media strongly backed the newly created pro-Putin Unity Party and heavily criticized the opposition Communist Party and others.

Reporting on Chechnya

Events surrounding Putin's election as president in March 2000, witnessed ominous trends in press freedom. The Yeltsin-Putin administration launched a new attack on Chechnya in September 1999. Polls showed that this renewal of conflict was widely supported by the Russian populace, weary of increased theft and lawlessness in the region. Particularly sensational were reports of the kidnapping of hundreds of Russians, including by Chechen criminals who would conduct raiding parties into areas bordering Chechnya to seize hostages. These hostages would be held for ransom or even pressed into "slave labor." This situation, along with a Chechen incursion into Russia's neighboring Dagestan region in July-August 1999, ostensibly to establish wider Islamic fundamentalist rule, triggered a renewal of conflict. The Russian military response received added Russian popular support following a series of bombings of apartment buildings in Moscow and elsewhere that raised popular panic, blamed by the Russian authorities on Chechen criminals.

The initial huge support by most Russians for renewed military and police intervention in Chechnya permitted the unpopular Yeltsin to successfully designate his prime minister, Vladimir Putin, as his successor in December 1999. The general apathy that at first greeted the designation of the relatively unknown Putin was soon replaced by popular enthusiasm engendered in part through a pro-Putin media campaign launched by allied oligarchs. Circumstances also enhanced popular support for Putin, particularly the apartment bombings, which created widespread panic and caused many Russians to welcome Putin's apparent resoluteness. At the same time, Putin and the military-police forces in Chechnya imposed a harsh censorship on reporting from Chechnya to prevent adverse news from harming Putin's electoral chances.

The military has attempted to control media reports from Chechnya through a highly restrictive press accreditation procedure. Under the procedure only pro-Putin reporters have been approved for visits. They are only shown designated sites under armed escort, and their dispatches are screened and censored if necessary. Also, censorship over media accounts of the conflict are imposed throughout Russia by the seven Russian military districts and by regional police offices. The government has used anti-terrorism laws to argue that media cannot legally publish interviews with Chechen leaders.

Reporters have been killed or attacked in Chechnya by both Russian and Chechen forces. Among the most prominent cases involving Russian forces, in January 2000, Andrey Babitsky, a Moscow-based reporter for Radio Liberty, was reported by the Russian military to be missing in Chechnya. The military claimed that he had not abided by accreditation procedures. It was soon revealed, however, that after apprehending him and holding him in the infamous Chernokozovo filtration camp, the military allegedly handed him over to Chechen guerrillas in exchange for two Russian military hostages. In late January Babitsky was released by these guerrillas in neighboring Dagestan, but was then charged by the Russian government with not having proper travel documents at the time when he was freed by the guerrillas. He was found guilty under these charges in October 2000, but an international outcry helped prevent him from being jailed.

Another reporter who endeavored to provide unbiased coverage of the Chechnya conflict was Anna Politkovskaya, who visited the region several times after September 1999. She was finally detained by Russian troops in February 2001, accused of traveling to areas of Chechnya without permission. Following an outcry by fellow reporters and others, she was released and expelled back to Moscow. She later wrote that she had seen pits at the Khatuni filtration camp where Chechens were allegedly held, often for ransom by Russian soldiers. A commission led by Vladimir Kalamanov, Putin's human rights emissary in Chechnya visited Khatuni in March and reported seeing no such pits. Military prosecutors pronounced Politkovskaya a liar and proposed that she be sued for slander. Supporting the government's denials, ORT television news announcer Mikhail Leontyev, who in May 2001 became a leader of the pro-Putin ultranationalist Eurasia movement, called Politkovskaya's report "absurd," saying that he knew Khatuni well and that there were no filtration camps or pits there.

More Media Restraints

Russia's battle with the press gained increasing attention in Chechnya and soon came under even further scrutiny. The widespread popular criticism of the Putin government's treatment of the sinking of the submarine Kursk in August 2000 caused the government to harshly accuse the media of manufacturing and fueling the outcry. Putin's apparently shocked reaction to criticism that he appeared cavalier in the immediate aftermath of the sinking may have contributed to decisions to move more resolutely against perceived anti-government reporting. The sinking of the Kursk witnessed the use of friendly and government-controlled media by the Putin government to deflect criticism. State television RTR was given special access to Putin, and the state-controlled newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta on August 23-24 condemned attacks against Putin by some "politicians and journalists," singling out Gusinsky's media as seeking to "undermine presidential power" and cause the "dismemberment of Russia." Putin, on August 22, criticized attempts to exaggerate the situation politically for the benefit and interests of certain groups. Slyly questioning the patriotism and motives of Berezovsky, who had collected $1 million to help the families of the Kursk sailors, Putin asserted that those who had collected $1 million for the families had "for a long time contributed to the collapse of the Army, Navy, and state," and that "it would be better for them to sell their villas on the Mediterranean coast."

The U.S. State Department's Human Rights Report for 2000 underscored growing U.S. concerns about the status of freedom of the press in Russia during the first few months of Putin's rule. Responding to the Human Rights Report, Russian Information Minister Lesin, in late February 2001, asserted that there was more freedom of speech in Russia than in the United States, because media in the United States are owned by about fifty wealthy individuals, while Russian media are more widely owned.

Among moves harmful to press freedom the pro-Putin Unity Party and the Liberal Democratic Party sponsored legislative amendments to the 1990 media law that were denounced by the Yabloko Party deputies as threatening freedom of the press. The proposed amendments called for re-centralizing the issuing of media licenses, stripping freelancers or stringers of their status as journalists, and allowing prosecutions of media that "deliberately spread false information." Some of the proposals introduced by Unity deputies, such as not permitting reporters to protect their sources, appeared too extreme and were not supported by the Unity faction leadership in the Duma. Other amendments under consideration by Duma committees reportedly included restrictions on foreign information on the Internet.

The State Duma on April 26, 2001, moved to further constrain freedom of the press by overwhelmingly approving a draft bill banning foreign ownership or control of Russian media. The pro-Putin Unity Party, which sponsored the bill, stated that its passage was necessary to safeguard press freedom and national security. The timing of the bill appeared linked to interest by U.S. media magnate Ted Turner in possibly purchasing a share of NTV to maintain its independence from the Russian government. The bill also specifically stated that persons with dual citizenship could not own controlling shares of media firms, appearing to be a clear attack on Vladimir Gusinsky, who holds dual Russian and Israeli citizenship. The bill is part of the implementation of the Information Security Doctrine issued by Putin.

The Information Security Doctrine

The Information Security Doctrine was approved by decree in September 2000 as a policy guide, including the drafting of state-sponsored legislation. The doctrine justifies the strict management of mass media and the construction of new state-owned communications networks for the executive branch of the civilian leadership and for the military and security agencies. As part of this process the Russian government is re-centralizing its control over dozens of regional radio and television affiliates that had fallen somewhat under the sway of the governors and republic presidents.

According to one view the Information Security Doctrine was a response by the Putin government to its decreasing ability to get its message across to the population and to control information flows. State-sponsored news programs were garnering less and less audience share compared to commercial media, creating dissatisfaction among Soviet-thinking bureaucrats. A major rationale was to protect against what some Third World socialists term "information imperialism" by the West. As argued in the doctrine, the West is both trying to impose its views on Russians and to block Russia from making its views known in the "world information space." It warns that foreign influences are trying to take over and control Russia's media. In response it calls for laws regulating foreign media and for more influence by the government over the content of Russia's media, including the ability to block the dissemination of "unlawful information and psychological influences." According to the doctrine, by early 2001, the government is to re-consolidate its effective censorship over the mass media. The doctrine calls for "advisory groups" of trusted journalists to be set up as a top-down means of control. It also calls for stricter standards for the registration of media, which may result in opposition media being stripped of their registration, and for the strict application of laws against the divulgence of military and national security secrets. By 2003 a system of media and communications for military troops is to be operational where they are deployed and based, to be completed by 2005. A major role in military information dissemination is to be played by the Rosinformcentr (Russian Information Center), created in late 1999 to manage news about the Chechnya conflict. According to some reports Russian officials have also proposed that Rosinformcentr and its head, Sergey Yastrzhembsky, be given added responsibilities for controlling civilian media.

The Information Security Doctrine called for providing "counter-propaganda" to foreign media to counter what it termed "disinformation" on Russia's policies. In a foreign policy address in late January 2001, Putin called for a "struggle for influence over public moods abroad" to "explain Russia's positions." In line with this call Information Minister Mikhail Lesin on February 27, 2001, held a press conference to announce that Russia would begin a "social advertising" campaign in the United States and later in Europe to counter negative Western media accounts of Russia. He also criticized Russian media that he alleged contributed to negative Western media evaluations, singling out Media-Most official Igor Malashenko, who had provided information on freedom of the press in Russia for the U.S. State Department's annual human rights report. Russian critics of the doctrine's call for counter-propaganda have argued that Russia's international image will only change in a positive direction when it seriously pursues democratic and free market reforms.

The Federal Agency for Governmental Communications and Information (FAPSI) not only has responsibility for encryption and security over Russian government communications, but under the doctrine it will also ensure the general security of Russia's "information space." One of its main roles will be to prevent the dissemination of "misinformation." It has moved to carry out surveillance of e-mail and websites on the Internet, along with the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB).

The 2001 Russian state budget reportedly had secret sections dealing with funding for media "rebuilding," including modern communications networks such as microwave and satellite. According to a report in the Russian newspaper Kommersant, it also included funding for the "information struggle." This has reportedly included use of the budgeted funds to gain control over major Russian news sources on the Internet.

Media-Most

The 1998 Russian financial crisis harmed already economically fragile media companies, since advertising revenues and subscriptions plummeted. In the case of Media-Most the crisis led owner Vladimir Gusinsky to seek further loans, contributing to the company's greater financial dependency on state-controlled energy company Gazprom's goodwill. Unfortunately, Media-Most was not favored by the Putin government.

Although Gusinsky used his Media-Most holdings to support Yeltsin in the 1996 presidential race, Gusinsky later had a falling-out with Yeltsin. Media-Most media tended to be more critical of government policies and actions in recent years than others. The main holding of Media-Most was its National Television (NTV) station, the only independent, nationwide television station in Russia. Media-Most's support for one of Putin's opponents in the presidential race—the liberal Yabloko Party head Grigory Yavlinsky—was the most immediate source of ire by the Putin regime.

Growing government harassment of Media-Most was highlighted in May 2000, when armed tax police raided the headquarters and television stations NTV and Memonet. The Prosecutor's Office announced that the raid was part of an investigation into financial improprieties by Media-Most's guard service. These raids were followed by dozens of raids on Media-Most offices and the homes of employees. Gusinsky was arrested on June 13, 2000, and charged with embezzlement during the privatization of a television station in St. Petersburg. He was held for three days in jail but was released following an international outcry, and, three weeks later, he left Russia for Spain. Indicating that his departure was negotiated, the prosecutor dropped the embezzlement charges.

Gusinsky, under pressure in July 2000, had acquiesced to the transfer of his share of Media-Most holdings to creditor Gazprom, in return for debt forgiveness and the government's agreement to drop all proposed or possible criminal charges. Gusinsky later denounced the agreement as having been signed under duress and therefore void. The Putin administration claimed it was not a participant in this deal, but Information Minister Lesin later admitted involvement in what some critics termed an attempt to blackmail Gusinsky. Gusinsky, while in Spain, negotiated with Gazprom to protect his investment in Media-Most, but in December 2000, he was detained by Spanish authorities on an Interpol warrant on fraud charges newly brought by the Russian Prosecutor's Office. The prosecutor charged that Gusinsky had received loans from Gazprom by pledging shares of companies that were insolvent. During this turmoil the Putin government claimed it was not politically persecuting Gusinsky, and Gazprom claimed that it was merely pursuing its financial interests.

After a board meeting on April 3, 2001, where Gazprom seized control of NTV and named the president of Gazprom and five other Gazprom officials to the nine-person board, many employees at NTV refused to accept the new management and barricaded the NTV building. Several public rallies took place in Moscow in support of the independence of NTV. Police forcibly occupied the building in a pre-dawn raid on April 14, 2001. Gazprom designated Boris Jordan, a U.S. citizen active in Russian business, as chairman of the NTV board. Jordan argued that the takeover of NTV by Gazprom was strictly motivated by NTV's insolvency and Gazprom's efforts to protect its shares. Moving against other Gusinsky assets, Gazprom bid its shares in alliance with co-owner and manager Dmitriy Biryukov to seize control of the Sem Dnei ("Seven Days") publishing company from Gusinsky. Biryukov then cancelled publication of the liberal newspaper Segodnya and fired the editorial staff of the magazine Itogi. Ted Turner, the American head of large U.S. media holdings, in February indicated interest in buying a share of NTV to maintain its independence from Russian state control, but he pulled out of talks in April when it became clear that the government, through Gazprom, intended to retain majority control. Also, many of the top personnel at NTV quit, reducing its value.

Gazprom has maintained that it has no political plans for its new media holdings and may even seek to sell some of its holdings, according to some reports. Some critics, however, claim that the activities of other media it controls do not give room for optimism. They point to the Gazprom-owned newspaper Trud, which has few readers, operates at a deficit, and does not address sensitive political issues, as an example.

Other Media Harassment

Oligarch Boris Berezovsky's Logovaz press syndicate was instrumental during the December 1999 Duma races and Putin's presidential election in pushing Putin's agenda and attacking Putin's opponents. Berezovsky also owned 49 percent of ORT, Russian Public Television, with the remaining 51 percent controlled by the government. He too, however, soon faced government harassment. According to Berezovsky, the harassment was linked to critical coverage by ORT of Putin's response to the sinking of the Kursk submarine in August 2000. Immediately after these critical reports, Berezovsky alleged in a letter he released in September 2000 that the presidential administration had demanded that he relinquish his shares in ORT, seeking to completely silence ORT like it was using Gazprom and the prosecutor's efforts to silence NTV. In December 2000 police from several agencies conducted a massive raid on Berezovsky's offices at ORT, claiming ORT had smuggled foreign films into Russia. In January 2001 Berezovsky sold his ORT shares to oligarch Roman Abramovich, whom Berezovsky termed a "middleman" for the government. In February 2001, the government moved to name the remaining members of the board of directors. However, Information Minister Lesin subsequently claimed that Abramovich no longer held the shares and that they had been sold to private buyers.

The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) and Interior Ministry police have been implicated in several attacks on journalists. In January 2000, in a case reminiscent of Soviet-era practices against dissidents, Moscow police arrested investigative reporter Alexander Khinshtein, accused him of mental illness, and tried to take him to a psychiatric clinic. Among other cases the Putin administration reportedly has been putting pressure on the English-language newspaper Moscow Times, which is critical of the Putin regime, to soften its reporting. In late 2000 the Moscow Times was forced out of its offices to make way for a new Putin government-created English language newspaper.

Greater government oversight over the content of telephone, cellular, and Internet communications was provided by a Russian Communications Ministry directive issued in July 2000 that called for all state and private operators to facilitate monitoring by the FSB. Communications firms were then required to work with the FSB in designing and installing surveillance equipment and even in training FSB personnel in its use. Although the proposed monitoring was criticized by the public in 1998, during the more restrictive Putin era there were already fewer media outlets willing to air negative commentary, according to observers. In the Internet realm Putin's media advisor, Gleb Pavlovsky, wants the government to restructure its state-owned or controlled media as an hierarchy initially led by the internet site he set up, strana.ru. In October 2000 Pavlovsky took over the news portal vesti.ru, stating that henceforth it would report patriotic and right wing views. A few months later in January 2001 the government news agency NOVOSTI set up a news portal called rian.ru, to promulgate government information, including from state-owned television and radio stations. According to some reports the government also planned to set up an internet provider.

Recent History and the Future

Polls indicate that the public appears divided on the issue of press freedom. A poll conducted by the well-regarded All-Russia Public Opinion Center in January 2001 found that 42 percent of those polled thought the media have enough freedom, while 18 percent thought the media were too free. On the other hand, 33 percent thought that media did not yet have enough freedom. Another poll showed that public support for the independence of NTV was not overwhelming. According to one poll taken by Center on April 7-8, after the NTV takeover, only 21 percent of respondents decried the Gazprom move to seize management control of NTV. These respondents, however, have been vocal despite their apparent minority status. Yabloko announced at a rally on April 28, 2001, that it had gathered signatures from 863,000 people supporting the continued independence of NTV and freedom of speech. Even the Russian legislature's Audit Chamber in early 2001 questioned the government's harassment of Media-Most. It issued a report on the finances of the state-controlled RTR television station and its parent company, concluding that they were suffering major financial losses. The auditors noted that Information Minister Lesin, the former financial manager at the parent company, retained financial interests there, and questioned why the government was selectively pursuing only Gusinsky and Media-Most for financial improprieties and debts.

A policy forum convened by the International Research and Exchanges Board in December 2000 recommended that the United States and European states take several measures to encourage press freedom in Russia. It called for the development of media centers throughout Russia where journalists could receive training and advice from visiting foreign journalists, and technical assistance for Russian newspaper editors to help them better manage advertising and finances. The forum advocated that government agencies develop their own public relations capabilities rather than pressuring commercial media to act as their mouthpieces. It also called for U.S. and European governments to offer more assistance to the Russian legislature to help it write laws upholding the freedom of information and broadcast licensing.

The Struggle for a Free Press Continues

Despite the pressure on freedom of the press during the Putin era, some free expression remains, as evident in media criticism of Putin's treatment of the Kursk disaster and some continued brave criticism of the Chechnya conflict and government corruption. The Russian government might find it difficult to control information flows where both reporters and the public have become used to certain freedoms. In particular, the government might find it difficult to control the Internet and a less docile judicial system, and might have to tolerate independent voices.

Observers will be monitoring the re-trial of environmental journalist Grigory Pasko, scheduled for early 2001 but delayed into the summer. He was arrested by the FSB and imprisoned in November 1997, charged with handing over allegedly secret documents on radiation waste spills by the Pacific Ocean Fleet to Japanese reporters. The military court of the Pacific Fleet in Vladivostok acquitted him of espionage and treason charges in July 1999, but convicted him on a lesser offense of abuse of office, sentenced him to three years' imprisonment, and then freed him for time served. Pasko appealed this reduced sentence, calling for complete exoneration. A military panel of Russia's Supreme Court vacated the acquittal in November 2000 and remanded the case for re-trial in Vladivostok. The re-trial decision was viewed by Pasko's supporters as political harassment. Pasko's defense in the first trial had been supported by the Glasnost' Defense Fund, the Open Society Institute, and several Russian newspapers, who have called for support for his re-trial. Pasko's future, like that of Russia's media, remains uncertain.

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Jim Nichol

Chronology

January 15, 2000 Andrey Babitsky is reported missing in Chechnya.

February 25, 2000 Babitsky is freed in Dagestan by his captors.

April 26-27, 2000 Newspapers Novaya Gazeta and Kommarsant are warned that publishing an interview with Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, branded a terrorist by Moscow, violates anti-terrorism laws.

May 11, 2000 Tax police raid Media-Most offices, destroying computers and communications equipment.

June 13, 2000 Vladimir Gusinsky, head of Media-Most, is detained by Russian police.

June 16, 2000 Gusinsky is released from detention, but is charged with embezzlement.

July 6, 2000 Babitsky is charged with using false documents in Dagestan.

July 11, 2000 Police raid Media-Most offices.

July 19, 2000 Police seize Gusinsky's property.

July 27, 2000 The prosecutor drops the embezzlement case against Gusinsky, who flees to Spain.

October 6, 2000 Babitsky is found guilty of using false documents and is fined.

November 13, 2000 The Russian Prosecutor General issues a warrant for Gusinsky's arrest on embezzlement charges.

November 21, 2000 A military panel of the SupremeCourt dismisses a lower court acquittal in the espionage and treason trial of Grigory Pasko and sends the case back for re-trial.

December 5, 2000 Prosecutors and police raid ORT offices.

January 25, 2001 Court bailiffs raid NTV to freeze its assets.

February 7, 2001 Prosecutors and FSB officers raid Media-Most offices.

April 3, 2001 Gazprom seizes control of NTV at a meeting of its board, removing Gusinsky from control of the television station.

April 19, 2001 The Spanish High Court rejects a Russian request for Gusinsky's extradition on embezzlement charges. Gusinky then flees to Israel.

April 22, 2001 Russian prosecutors file a new arrest warrant with Interpol, alleging that Gusinsky was involved in money laundering.

Vladimir Putin

1952- Vladimir Putin, an ethnic Russian, was born in 1952 in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). In 1975 he graduated with a law degree from Leningrad State University. Instead of entering the law field, Putin landed a job with the Foreign Intelligence Administration of the KGB, the Soviet Union's secret police. It was here that he learned to speak German and English in preparation for an international assignment—living undercover as the director of the Soviet-German House of Friendship, a social and cultural club in East Germany.

In 1990 Putin returned to Leningrad and took a job as aide to deputy rector of his alma mater. However, this was reportedly a cover for his continuing intelligence work. Putin resigned from the KGB in 1991 in order to get involved in politics. He became the external affairs aide to St. Petersburg's (the former Leningrad) mayor, and in 1994 became deputy mayor.

In 1997 Putin was asked to join the administration of President Boris Yeltsin and served as deputy head of the Kremlin property office. He left the Kremlin in 1998 to head the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the KGB. In March of 1999 Putin became head of the Security Council, a body that advises the president on matters pertaining to foreign policy, national security, and military and law enforcement.

He served as Acting Premier, then Premier of Russian government from August-December, 1999. On New Year's Eve in 1999 Yeltsin unexpectedly stepped down as president and named Putin as acting president. In accordance with the Russian constitution the election was moved up to March 26, 2000. Putin won the election, garnering 52.6 percent of the vote. He was sworn in as Russia's second president, its first in a free transfer of power in the nation's 1,100-year history, on May 7, 2000.

An Assessment of Free Speech and Free Press in Russia

The U.S. State Department appraised the status of freedom of speech and of the press in Russia. Its observations were noted in Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, 2000 (February 2001). As this excerpts notes, the Russian government has reached a strong arm across media venues to restrict the free flow of uncensored information.

The [Russian] Constitution provides for freedom of speech and of the press, and numerous national and regional media reflect a multitude of opinions; however, government pressure on the media persisted and in some respects increased significantly, resulting in numerous infringements of these rights. The Government exerted pressure on journalists, particularly those who reported on corruption or criticized officials, by: selectively denying them access to information (including, for example, statistics theoretically available to the public) and filming opportunities; demanding the right to approve certain stories prior to publication; prohibiting the tape recording of public trials and hearings; withholding financial support from government media operations that exercised independent editorial judgment; attempting to influence the appointment of senior editors at regional and local newspapers and broadcast media organizations; removing reporters from their jobs; and bringing libel suits against journalists. Faced with continuing financial difficulties and increased pressure from the Government, many media organizations saw their autonomy erode during the year… Government intimidation and censorship, both direct and indirect, remained a significant problem during the year… The Government has also brought considerable pressure to bear on the largest media conglomerates. The most notable example of this phenomenon was the high-profile conflict between the Kremlin and Media-Most (owned by Vladimir Gusinskiy)… The Kremlin has also reportedly sought to strengthen its control over the country's most widely watched television network, ORT… The press and media NGO's reported a number of killings of journalists, presumed to be related to the journalistic work of the victims, and dozens of other bodily assaults on journalists.

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