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Russia7 June 2006

Open letter to President Putin holds him responsible for gagging the Russian press

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Dear President Putin,

You have just hosted the 59th World Newspaper Congress in Moscow, bringing together more than a thousand newspaper owners and editors from more than a hundred countries. During this gathering, World Association of Newspapers president Gavin O’Reilly asked you about the “climate of prudence and self-censorship” prevailing among Russian journalists, “state control” over the media and “the lack of independent national television.” In response to this strong criticism, you insisted that “the government’s influence is waning” and that it is not the government’s job to enhance the credibility of the press but for journalists to “make themselves credible.”

No, Mr. Putin, the government’s influence over the media has not waned. On the contrary, it has increased since you became president in 2000. We cannot let you say that the press is freer today in Russia, when in fact it is gagged, when the independent media are reduced to a shadow of their former selves and are only available in the capital, and when most Russians no longer have access to independent news and information.

You took over one of the most critical TV stations in Russia’s history, NTV, in 2001 by having it bought up by Gazprom-Media, the press group owned by the energy giant Gazprom, which you control. In a few years, Gazprom-Media has grown into a media empire. As well as NTV, it is now the majority shareholder in Moscow Echo, the only radio station critical of your government. Since June of last year, it has owned Izvestia, the daily newspaper of record. At the start of this year, local media reported that it was on the point of acquiring other newspapers including Kommersant, one of the last independent newspapers in Russia, which was finally bought up by a businessman close to its former owner, Boris Berezovski. The same sources say Komsomolskaia Pravda, one of the country’s biggest-circulation dailies, could soon be acquired by Gazprom-Média.

Many journalists have been the victims of Kremlin pressure. Evgeni Kisiliev was NTV’s editor in chief at the time when it was the standard-bearer of press freedom in Russia. Before he was fired in 2001, NTV carried current affairs programmes such as Kukly, a popular satirical programme that used puppets to caricature the country’s political leaders. The programme no longer exists.

Journalists working for the only privately-owned national television station, REN-TV, have also been the targets of censorship. Olga Romanova, the presenter of a current affairs programme called 24, was forced to resign in December 2005 along with three other senior staff members for objecting to censorship.

Reporters Without Borders has already registered several serious press freedom violations since the start of this year. At least seven news media (including four websites) have been censored and journalists have been the target of three judicial investigations for what they wrote. Reporters Without Borders is also aware of at least two cases of officials refusing to give journalists accreditation, several cases of access to information being blocked, four arrests, five physical attacks, one suspended prison sentence and one case of arbitrary imprisonment.

Acts of intimidation against journalists are frequent in the provinces, where the press is controlled by the local authorities. The case of Vladimir Rakhmankov, the editor of the Ivanovo-based online newspaper, who is accused of insulting you in a satirical article, is particularly disturbing. His site was suddenly closed down last month, probably as a result of pressure by Ivanovo politicians. He could be sentenced to 12 months of hard labour for making fun of attempts by regional officials to stimulate the birth rate, one of your priorities. The punishment he faces is archaic. A journalist in the Bashkir region, Viktor Shmakov, was held arbitrarily for just over two weeks for publishing opposition calls for the local governor’s resignation. He is accused under the criminal code of promoting terrorist activities.

Finally, Mr. Putin, we would like to remind you that the murder of Paul Klebnikov, an American journalist working for Forbes magazine who was gunned down in Moscow in July 2004, still has not been solved. A trial held in the utmost secrecy failed to identify either those who ordered this killing or those who carried it out. Reporters Without Borders calls for an independent commission to be set up to restart the investigation from scratch. We are waiting for the Russian authorities to give firm undertakings about this case.

If you are not responsible for the climate of violence against journalists in Russia, you are on the other hand responsible, Mr. President, for the prevailing impunity, which encourages the enemies of press freedom to continue to target journalists.

Robert Ménard, Secretary-General

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