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Russia9 January 2003

Russia turns back German journalist who wanted to probe human rights in Chechnya

Reporters Without Borders today protested against Russia’s expulsion of a prominent German writer and freelance investigative journalist, Günter Wallraff, who had gone to prepare an article on human rights in Chechnya. Wallraff and two German companions were turned back on their arrival at Moscow airport on 7 January.

"By preventing journalists from going to Chechnya to do their work, the Russian authorities have again showed that they have something to hide there," Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Robert Ménard said in a letter to Russian foreign minister Igor Ivanov. "We denounce this censorship and demand that journalists be able to cover the war in Chechnya without having to submit to every kind of administrative obstacle," Ménard said, calling for Wallraff to allowed to work freely in Russia.

Wallraff became famous in the 1980s for having posed as a Turkish worker in Germany, an experience on which he based a book and a film. The two fellow-Germans who accompanied him to Moscow were Norbert Bluem, a former Christian Democrat labour minister, and Rupert Neudeck, the head of the relief organisation Cap Anamur. Wallraff was to have met in Moscow with the leader of the Kremlin-appointed Chechen administration, Akhmad Kadyrov, before going to Ingushetia to investigate the situation of Chechen refugees. He had also intended to try to enter Chechnya.

On his arrival in Moscow, Wallraff was taken to a foreign ministry representative at the airport, who cancelled his tourist visa. He was then sent back to Germany on the same plane without being allowed to contact the German embassy in Moscow. The Russian foreign ministry said it had concluded from an interview with Wallraff published by Stern magazine on 2 January that he planned to find evidence of human rights violations in Chechnya and then launch "a new campaign against Russia in the German news media."

Wallraff told Reporters Without Borders that he made the mistake of publishing several articles before he left in which he criticised the Russian authorities and announced his intention of investigating the human rights and humanitarian situation in Chechnya although he was going to Russia on just a tourist visa. He said: "Journalists are more and more often forced to used unofficial and indirect means to investigate human rights abuses. The Russian authorities are very good at hiding information about violations and know how to ensure that only their viewpoint gets out in the news media. So it is harder and harder for human rights activists to make themselves heard."

The obstacles to free information about the war in Chechnya became official on 1 October 1999 when journalists were banned from travelling freely in the region. Since June 2001, accredited journalists are not allowed to move about within Chechnya without an interior ministry escort. A ministerial decision further reduced the possibilities of war coverage in Chechnya in October 2002 by specifying territories, organisations and institutions, including "zones where antiterrorist operations are under way," to which foreigners are denied access unless they have special permission. The directive did not however say how such a permission to enter Chechen territory could be obtained or how long it would be valid.

Journalists with Russia’s state-owned media are obliged to adapt to the blackout imposed by the army, while the independent news media and foreign journalists in practice no longer have access to Chechnya. Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist with the daily Novaya Gazeta, was arrested by the Russian military in the Shatoy region in the south of Chechnya in February for "violating the regulations in force for journalists." She succeeded in escaping after she had been escorted to the local military base from where she was to have been expelled.

Russian soldiers seized the accreditation and equipment of journalists working for the state-owned television stations ORT and TV Tsenter in August on the grounds that they were not accompanied by a Russian army representative while questioning Chechens fleeing a village where Russian troops were carrying out a "mopping-up operation." In November, Russian security forces confiscated the footage which Hans Wilhelm Steinfeld, the Moscow correspondent of the Norwegian public television station NRK, had just shot of Chechen refugees.

The Russian authorities pursue a policy aimed at co-opting the news media and restricting press freedom. This was particular evident when Chechen rebels took 700 persons hostage in a Moscow theatre from 23 to 26 October. Several news media, both Russian and foreign, were heavily criticised for their coverage and the Duma passed an antiterrorist law that would have allowed the authorities to prosecute any journalist covering subjects linked to terrorism and the war in Chechnya. President Putin vetoed the bill at the last moment.

In a 13 November letter to Fritz Pleitgen, chairman of the German state-owned TV network ARD, the Russian authorities said they had found the German news media coverage of the hostage-taking to have been "shocking, utterly intolerable and deplorable for a public institution," and questioned their future cooperation with ARD.

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