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Russia17 February 2006

Reporters Without Borders denounces minister’s criticism of media for exposing army bullying

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Open letter to Sergei Ivanov Minister of defence Russian Federation

17 February 2006

Dear Minister:

The media late last month exposed cases of brutal bullying of new recruits in the army which each year causes thousands of deaths or desertions and you spoke about this to the lower house of parliament (the Duma) on 15 February. The media cited reports by the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers, which defends the rights of young soldiers.

The media and the public have been especially concerned about the fate of one of the victims, Andrei Sychev, who was handed over to drunken superiors who beat him up because he refused to perform degrading sexual acts on them. They kept him crouched down for hours and refused him medical care for four days. He was only taken to hospital when they noticed he could no longer walk. He developed gangrene and both legs and his sexual organs had to be amputated on 6 January to save his life.

You have accused the media of exaggerating the episode “to make headlines” and of making “gratuitous allegations against all soldiers, especially all generals.”

You minimise the bullying and dreadful torture meted out by officers to new soldiers by saying that “bullying starts in nursery school where some teachers mistreat children” and that “society is like that.”

You accused “some media of devoting entire pages” to the tortures and that “it’s impossible to tell what army is being referred to, the Russian army or an enemy army.”

You claim the media has blackened the army’s reputation and distorted the situation in the military.

Your accusations are unacceptable. How can you carry out your responsibilities towards the media when you accuse them of every sin and refuse to admit the errors of the army? How can you criticise them for reporting such a serious episode when it is so difficult to investigate the army and the case would never have been revealed without their help? How can you ignore the fact that the case has made people aware of the serious ill-treatment of army recruits in Russia, since it is not an isolated case?

The main job of the media is to inform and alert the public about serious problems. Do you mean that the Sychev case should never have been reported?

You go further however, to accuse the media of encouraging desertions from the army and say that their action raises the question of whether these media are duly and legally registered. You are threatening them with punishment. What is there in the national constitution that allows the press to be punished because it criticises public institutions?

Do you want Russia to be like openly authoritarian regimes such as Belarus and Turkmenistan, where all news is controlled and the media is only allowed to relay government propaganda?

Should Russia be allowed to abuse international press freedom standards?

The Russian government has reverted very sharply in the past few years to authoritarian practices by steadily regaining control of the media and news. TV networks are censored and the last independent one, REN-TV, was recently taken over by a private firm reportedly controlled by government associates. Foreign journalists are having more and more trouble getting visas and accreditation. Radio stations are also monitored by the government and get warning phone calls when they are too critical.

Chechnya is still a “black hole” for news and access to it is tightly controlled by the Russian authorities and in effect closed off. The current trial in the murder of Russian-born US journalist Paul Khlebnikov, who was shot dead in Moscow in 2004, is barred to the media and the public and few are taking notice of it.

If this situation continues, it will soon be impossible to have access to real news and the situation in the country will be a closed book. An English-language all-news TV station, Russia Today, was recently launched to officially “improve the country’s image.” Yet you are calling for the media to be punished so that matters than tarnish the army’s image are not reported.

We deplore your statements, which alarmingly reveal your wish to silence the media. We think your job is not to denounce the media but to identify and punish those responsible for these appalling incidents in the ranks of your army.

Robert Ménard


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