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Attacks on the Press in 1997 - Russia

Publisher Committee to Protect Journalists
Publication Date February 1998
Cite as Committee to Protect Journalists, Attacks on the Press in 1997 - Russia, February 1998, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/47c5654923.html [accessed 23 August 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

In a March radio address, President Boris Yeltsin claimed that "one of the chief victories of the new Russia, undisputed even by its opponents, is freedom of the press, and its independence from yelling bosses and ideological pep-talks ... we will no longer have political or ideological censorship."

Most investigative reporters, especially in provincial areas, begged to differ. Yet soon after his speech, leading Russian journalists were quoting Yeltsin's words back to him in a paradoxical cry for his intervention. A group of editors and prominent cultural figures appealed publicly to Yeltsin to intervene and protect editorial integrity in the face of mounting pressure from commercial interests. They shared the concerns outlined in a government-sponsored report on the media which bemoaned the "intensive monopolization of the press, its concentration in the hands of certain individuals and financial giants, and the creation of multimedia concerns which conducted their own information policy."Yeltsin met in September with six of Russia's biggest financial and media magnates, urging them to stop "slinging mud"at each other and his cabinet members through their media outlets.

The "clash of titans" – the war over media properties by Russia's top bankers and industrialists – had a pervasive effect on Russia's press throughout the year. Editors, reporters, and foreign observers agree that press freedom has been the loser as frenzied battles for ownership and control of influential media outlets led to the resignation or dismissal of a number of prominent editors and columnists, and to the muting of criticism of certain public officials.

The new media moguls do not acquire newspapers or television stations because of their profitability, given the still relatively weak advertising sector, but to increase their political influence. Encroachment of big business interests has not only affected reporting on the Kremlin; coverage of the opening of the Caspian Sea oil pipelines, one of the biggest stories of 1997, and other Caucasian affairs, were also distorted. For example, Vagit Alekperov, the head of the oil company Lukoil, which owns a large percentage of the newspaper Izvestia, was reported by rival media to have forbidden the paper to criticize Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia, or to investigate oil deals emerging from a state visit to Russia by Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev.

Media revelations of government scandal could be read in terms of their owners' agendas. In October, reporter Alexei Minkin of Moskovskiy Komsomolets, broke the story of large payments for a book contract received by Vice Premier Anatoly Chubais, who has led the effort to privatize government properties. The media owned by Vladimir Gusinsky gave the story full play – a response some observers said was related to Gusinsky's failed bid for shares in Svyazinvest, a telecommunications company, which was won by Oneksimbank, which is perceived to be as close to Chubais. Moskovskiy Komsomolets, which claims to exist on advertising revenue, is believed to be more independent than other papers with large investments by financial concerns, but reportedly receives backing from Moscow's Mayor Yuri Luzhkov (who receives favorable coverage in the paper).

Charges of reprisal killings of journalists are common in Russia, although usually unsubstantiated. The murder of several prominent investigative journalists in the last five years remain unsolved. Some unsolved cases, such as the murder of Vadim Biryukov, formerly of the leading government wire service ITAR-TASS, deputy director of the publishing concern Press-Kontakt, and founder of the magazine Delovyye lyudi (Business People), straddled a gray area between journalism and commerce, where the commingling of news and business interests made it particularly difficult for outside observers to determine the motive in the killings.

Still, journalism was aptly dubbed Russia's "most dangerous profession"by newscasters, not only because of physical attacks, but due to a world record of 21 journalists kidnapped in or near the secessionist republic of Chechnya. NTV war correspondent Yelena Masyuk – one of CPJ's 1997 International Press Freedom awardees – was kidnapped with her crew in May by Chechen rebels, and held for three months. At year's end, all the abducted journalists except two Polish free-lancers had been freed, but only after complicated and prolonged negotiations and in most cases, the payment of huge ransoms. The epidemic of kidnappings led to severely curtailed news coverage of the troubled region and a virtual information blackout. The brief seizure of seven Chechen reporters in neighboring Dagestan in late December reinforced the conventional editorial wisdom that Chechnya should remain off-limits for reporters.

Vicious beatings of Russian journalists continued apace. The incidents stemmed from coverage of alleged corruption among government officials and organized crime.

Yeltsin's chief political rivals, the Communists and nationalists in the Duma (the federal parliament) were certainly no kinder to the press. In February and March, the Duma first ruled to strip an ORT parliamentary correspondent of his accreditation for critical coverage of debates on laws to curb pornography, then barred ORT from entering the parliament. Although the Judicial Chamber for Information Disputes called the parliament's action a violation of the Law on the Media and the Constitution, this body and other executive agencies were helpless to control parliamentary censorship. After further acrimonious debates and appeals, the parliament banned all television coverage of its sessions and ruled to ban journalists from corridors near the chambers where debates took place, a move condemned by reporters as an unacceptable restriction on their access to legislators. Generally, libel suits and hostile tax inspections were the preferred methods of harassment, leading to hundreds of court cases.

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