Area: 17,075,400 sq.km.
Head of state: President Vladimir Putin
The government’s grip on the country’s TV stations tightened in 2004 and crucial news about the school hostages crisis in Beslan (North Ossetia) was blatantly censored. The tragedy involved many attacks on press freedom. Russia is still a dangerous place for journalists and at least two, including the editor of the Russian edition of the US magazine Forbes, were murdered. The number of physical attacks remained high, especially in the provinces. Hopes were fading for the reappearance of journalist Ali Astamirov, kidnapped in Ingushetia in July 2003.
TV stations, under the Kremlin’s tight control, were strictly censored, especially about Chechnya. The programmes of NTV, the only independent station before it was taken over by the central government in 2001, was purged again in 2004.
Its outspoken journalist Leonid Parfenov was fired and his popular weekly programme "Namedni" dropped in early June 2004 after an interview with the widow of Chechen leader Zelimkhan Iandarbiev and a report on the trial of two Russian agents accused of murdering him. Parfenov said his programme was dropped "at the request of the security services." A month later, all news-related programmes were suspended, except for daily bulletins, after Tamara Gavrilova, a former aide of President Vladimir Putin, was named head of the station.
Media coverage of the school hostage drama in Beslan (North Ossetia) in early September when more than 300 people died showed clearly the government’s grip on nationwide TV. While Russians sought full and impartial news about the drama, TV stations simply broadcast official news and only later showed pictures of the attack on the school by security forces.
Unlike the censored TV, the written media was more independent and critical and offered readers very different material, especially about the number of hostages, the kidnappers’ demands and details of the security forces’ attack.
Many press freedom violations occurred during the event. Several foreign journalists were arrested or deported. A team from the Georgian TV station Rustavi 2 were accused of not having visas and held for five days until state security officials admitted that the journalists, who lived in a town near the border, had permission to enter North Ossetia without visas.
Two Russian journalists specialising in Chechnya were sent to cover the story. One of them, Anna Politkovskaya, of the daily Novaya Gazeta, wanted to try to negotiate with the terrorists, as she had during the hostage-taking at a Moscow theatre in 2002. But she was apparently poisoned during her flight to the region on 2 September, falling seriously ill after drinking some tea. She was urgently taken to hospital in Rostov and later to Moscow, where she recovered a few days later.
Andrei Babitski, of the Russian service of the US station Radio Free Europe, was arrested at Moscow airport as he was leaving for Beslan the same day. Airport police said sniffer-dogs had detected explosives in his baggage. He was freed after a search. But after an argument as he left the police post, he was arrested again and sentenced the next day to five days imprisonment (commuted to a fine) for "hooliganism."
Two journalists killed
Paul Khlebnikov, 41, editor of the Russian edition of the US magazine Forbes, was shot dead in a Moscow street on 9 July. Several Chechens suspected of being involved were arrested in Russia and Belarus. Police focused at once on a motive connected with his work, since he had reported on Russian businessmen.
He had also written a book based on interviews with Khozh-Akhmed Nukhayev, a former vice-premier of the Chechnya separatist government. The book ("Conversations with a Barbarian"), published in 2003, painted a negative picture of Nukhayev and other Chechen rebels. In another book, in 2000, he had called Russian businessman Boris Berezovsky "the Godfather of the Kremlin" and said he had links with the Chechen mafia.
Adlan Khasanov, 33, a Chechen reporter-photographer with Reuters, was killed along with a score of other people on 9 May 2004 when Chechya President Akhmad Kadyrov was assassinated during World War II victory celebrations at a stadium in Grozny.
Once again, a large number of journalists were physically attacked throughout the country during the year, without anyone responsible being punished.
The complete lack of news about missing journalist Ali Astamirov, Agence France-Presse (AFP) correspondent in Ingushetia and Chechnya kidnapped on 4 July 2003, was alarming. Neither Moscow-based investigators nor the prosecutor’s office in Nazran (Ingushetia) made any progress. No ransom demand was received by his family or AFP and no contact made with his supposed kidnappers.
2 journalists were killed
17 threatened or physically attacked
and 14 media censored
"A destructive and efficient process"
Journalist Andrei Babitsky, a producer with the Russian service of Radio Free Europe and a Chechnya specialist, criticises President Putin’s policy of bringing the media to heel.
One of President Vladimir Putin’s great but dubious successes is having quietly and steadily gained control of the entire media since he came to power in 2000. It’s been a carefully thought-out, destructive and efficient process and the appointment in July 2004 of one of his closest aides as head of the national station NTV was a key event. The station, controlled by Gazprom, had been the Russian media’s beacon of independence until 2001.
This media now has scant editorial or financial independence. Even the radio station Ekho Moskvy, the flagship of independent journalism since 1990, seems about to fall into Gazprom’s hands. Anyone wanting to launch a new media outlet can’t do so without the backing of powerful business groups and its editorial line mustn’t criticise the government and its interests. The media not only fiercely compete with each other but are now under a heavier government hand than ever. The broadcast media are special targets of Putin and his aides.
The government also continues to invent new rules to muzzle journalists, such as the anti-terrorist bill approved by parliament on 17 December 2004 that will allow Putin to impose Chechnya-style emergency measures whenever and anywhere in the country he wants. On the pretext of anti-terrorist operations, the government will be able to ban journalists from reporting on events or even mentioning them. Putin has been working on the measure since 2001.
Covering the war in Chechnya is harder than ever. I’ve just returned from Chechnya and I had to get there illegally because of the ban on the media. If I’d been caught by the authorities or the local militias, I wouldn’t’ve got out alive. It wasn’t like that four years ago, when I was arrested by the federal army and put in the Chernokozovo transit camp. I was then handed over to a pro-Russian Chechen militia and eventually freed thanks to an international campaign. This probably wouldn’t be possible today.
The media’s loss of influence over the Russian people is bad. These days they accept the official line and trust Putin more than the media, which wasn’t so three or four years ago. But I don’t think we’ll see a return of the total media control of the Soviet era. The existence of the Internet fortunately stops that happening.