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Russia9 May 2005

Press freedom fears put to George Bush and President Barroso ahead of Moscow visits

Reporters Without Borders expressed concern at mounting press freedom violations in Russia since President Vladimir Putin took power, in letters to US President George Bush and European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, due to meet the Russian president successively on 9 and 10 May.

The worldwide press freedom organisation urged the two men to raise in talks with Putin the issue of "the absence of pluralism in news and information, an intensifying crackdown against journalists, leading to widespread self-censorship and the drastic state of press freedom in Chechnya".

"No fewer than 17 journalists were physically attacked and three others threatened in 2004 alone. Two journalists were assaulted in March 2005. Violence against journalists constitutes the most serious threat to press freedom in Russia."

"Several journalists have been murdered in recent years. The murder of Paul Khlebnikov, US citizen and editor of the Russian edition of Forbes magazine, as he left his office on 9 July 2004 has yet to fully elucidated." Reporters Without Borders told President Bush that the organisation had "reservations about the rigour and the impartiality of the current investigation".

"We expect Russian prosecutor-general Vladimir Yustinov to establish the whole truth about this murder, for which two suspects who have been extradited from Belarus are expected to go on trial this July. It is to be hoped that those who instigated this odious act will be quickly identified and punished".

Reporters Without Borders "is still hoping for some solid progress in the investigation into the murder of Alexey 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 the newspaper Toliattinskoye Obosrenie.

"To date the Russian government has taken no steps to see that the guilty of murder are identified and punished. This spiral of violence that is taking place with complete impunity can only encourage a policy of terror towards the press and force journalists to practise self-censorship," the organisation added in its letter to the President of the European Commission.

Reporters Without Borders also pointed out that "there was still no news about Ali Astamirov correspondent in Ingushetia for Agence France-Presse (AFP) who was abducted on 4 July 2003." The organisation urged José Manuel Barroso to intervene with Putin to get the Russian authorities to undertake to do everything possible to shed light on his disappearance. It also stressed the "shocking absence of pluralism in the broadcast sector and the recent disappearance of Russia’s independent media".

The press freedom organisation welcomed the adoption by the European Parliament on 28 April of the annual report on human rights worldwide in 2004. Its Article 38 expresses Europe’s concerns about "extension of de facto government control over most TV stations" and the real risk of seriously threatening "the existence of alternative sources of information".

The European Parliament, in Article 37 of this report, "strongly urges Russia to allow humanitarian organisations, reporters and human rights observers to have free access to Chechnya".

The Council of Europe (of which Russia is a member) said on 3 May that "Security-motivated censorship will only serve the cause of the terrorists." René Van der Linden, President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) called on the organisation’s 46 member states "to refrain from adopting unnecessary restrictions on the free flow of information under cover of the fight against terrorism".

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