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Russia18 April 2005

Reporters Without Borders calls on Condoleezza Rice to raise press freedom concerns with her Russian counterparts

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Reporters Without Borders has alerted Condoleezza Rice to serious threats to press freedom in Russia ahead of her 19 and 20 April meeting in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Journalists in Russia are being subjected to a rising spiral of violence with numbers of them suffering brutal attacks, the worldwide press freedom organisation said in its letter to the US Secretary of State.

It also urged her to raise the issue of "the disappearance of independent media in the country and growing crackdowns against journalists that is pushing them into a generalised self-censorship".

"No fewer than 17 journalists were physically attacked and three threatened in 2004 alone, because of their work. Two journalists suffered brutal attacks in March 2005." It said, adding "Violence against journalists constitutes the most serious threat to press freedom in Russia."

"We are most concerned about the health of Vladimir Lavrov, photographer with the local newspaper Moyo de Voronej (about 500 kms south of Moscow), who was brutally assaulted by several police officers on the evening of Wednesday 30 March 2005. They also seized the memory card from his digital camera that contained photos intended for the newspaper’s next edition.

"On 8 March 2005, Viktor Naikhin (better known as Viktor Baker), correspondent for Moyo and Komsomolskaya Pravda newspapers, was viciously attacked at his home in Voronej, while covering municipal and regional elections. He was beaten up over a period of around 40 minutes and left unconscious. He needed treatment for three broken ribs, concussion, and extensive bruising to the face. He also temporarily lost the use of his right hand."

"Several journalists have also been murdered in recent years. The shooting death of US national Paul Khlebnikov, editor of the Russian edition of the US Forbes magazine, as he was leaving his office on 9 July 2004, has still not been solved."

Reporters Without Borders is "still hoping for some real progress in the investigation into the murder of Alexei Sidorov. The 31-year-old journalist was stabbed by two men in the parking lot of his apartment block in Togliatti, west central Russia on 9 October 2003. He died shortly afterwards in the arms of his wife. Sidorov had succeeded Valery Ivanov, murdered in similar circumstances on 29 April 2002, as editor of Toliattinskoye Obosrenie.

"We are also still waiting for news of Ali Astamirov, correspondent for Agence France-Presse (AFP) in Ingushetia, who was kidnapped on 4 July 2003", the organisation added.

"Until now the Russian government has not taken any steps to ensure that those responsible are identified and punished. This spiral of violence that is carried out with complete impunity can only encourage this policy of sowing terror among the press and forcing journalists into generalised self-censorship."

The organisation also drew attention to the alarming absence of pluralism in the broadcast sector and the recent disappearance of independent media in Russia. The weekly Moskovskie Novosti and the dailies Nezavissimaya Gazeta, and Russky Kurier, the independent press’s last survivors, have been going through an unprecedented crisis. Russky Kurier has just folded, on 31 March 2005, for financial reasons following the sacking of its editor Igor Golembiovsky.

"Journalist staff have not been paid since January 2005 on Moskovskie Novosti because of a tussle between its editor Yevgenny Kisiliev and its proprietor Leonid Nevzlin. The newspaper could very soon be forced into closure as a result. The daily Nezavissimaya Gazeta, run by Boris Berezovsky is going through a restructuring and overhauling of its statutes, forcing all its journalists to become freelancers from 1st April."

"As a result the independent press has all but disappeared in Russia. Anna Politkovskaya, who works for the bi-weekly Novaya Gazeta that has a circulation of one million, describes her newspaper as the last fully financially independent publication in Russia. Half of its 156 journalists work without pay so that the newspaper can continue to appear. But Novaya Gazeta is already financially living on borrowed time."

Finally, Reporters Without Borders said it was "dismayed by the advertising monopoly operated through the agency Video International, which is under Kremlin control. Independent newspapers that cannot artificially increase their cover prices are forced to accept Video International rules if they want to survive: that is not to refer to the war in Chechnya and above all not to call for peace talks."

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