Attacks on the Press 1999: Russia

“We have to protect the state from the media,” said Mikhail Lesin, the head of Russia’s new Ministry for the Press, Radio and Television Broadcasting, and Media Affairs, shortly after taking office in July. Coming in advance of the country’s legislative and presidential elections, it was a stunning statement of Kremlin intent.

Lesin’s demonization of the press was all the more striking given the crucial role that Russian media played in Boris Yeltsin’s 1996 reelection campaign. Russia’s powerful media conglomerates united behind the unpopular Yeltsin, boosting him back into office over a bevy of rival candidates. Three years later, those same conglomerates were bitterly divided, some backing the Kremlin and others allied with one of its chief rivals. With rare exceptions, journalists working for the battling media barons served the interests of their bosses.

There were no neutral parties in Russia’s media wars. The Kremlin prosecuted whistle-blowing independent journalists such as Grigory Pasko, who exposed the Russian navy’s illegal nuclear-waste dumping, and threatened to cancel the credentials of Western media that covered alleged links between the Russian government and Russian mobsters who laundered money through the Bank of New York.

And the Kremlin was by no means alone in its coercive treatment of critical media. Immediately after media tycoon and Kremlin ally Boris Berezovsky bought the influential daily Kommersant, city fire inspectors raided its Moscow offices, sealing them overnight and forcing the paper to miss one edition, because of alleged infractions of the fire code. Berezovsky charged that Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov, an archÐKremlin foe, was behind the raid.

Alliances shifted with lightning speed as the different players jockeyed for power. Usually, independent journalism lost out. The independent, highly rated anticorruption show “Sovershenno Sekretno” (“Top Secret”), for example, was famous for its weekly, equal-opportunity exposés on the state-owned RTR network. “Sovershenno Sekretno” skewered everybody, including the government. Perhaps most notoriously, the program aired a grainy video that apparently showed Prosecutor General Yuri Skuratov, a Kremlin enemy, cavorting in bed with two young women, neither of whom was his wife. The video was provided to the show’s producers during the Kremlin’s campaign to oust Skuratov.

Even so, RTR canceled “Sovershenno Sekretno” in June. Artyom Borovik, the show’s well-known producer, believes the move came in retaliation for several May articles in one of the program’s sister publications, Versiya, that accused several top Kremlin officials of corruption.

The outlets making up Vladimir Gusinsky’s Media-Most Holding, including the NTV network, the radio station Ekho Moskvy, and the daily Segodnya, complained of a systematic campaign of harassment by tax police. After NTV backed Mayor Luzhkov’s presidential bid, federal authorities threatened to shut down the network unless it immediately repaid, in cash, government-guaranteed loans from Vneshekombank. Rival channels with similar debts were given flexible terms.

The courts were another battleground. In October, Moscow police opened a criminal investigation against ORT public- television host Sergei Dorenko for allegedly slandering Mayor Luzhkov. During three programs that aired on the Kremlin-controlled channel in September and October, Dorenko accused Luzhkov of spending misappropriated funds on foreign real-estate holdings. That week, Spanish police briefly detained Dorenko for trespassing during an attempt to prove that Luzkhov owned property near Soto-Grande in Spain. The mayor also filed a civil-libel suit against Dorenko, demanding a retraction and 450 million rubles (around US$1.6 million) in moral damages.

The Kremlin also applied its heavy hand to weaker domestic critics as well as to Western journalists investigating a huge financial scandal that dominated international media coverage before the Chechen conflict diverted its attention.

In July, a closed military tribunal found naval captain and journalist Grigory Pasko guilty of abusing his authority as an officer when he collected evidence of the Pacific fleet’s illicit disposal of nuclear waste for Japanese media. The Soviet-style prosecution of Pasko, which violated many of his civil rights, was clearly aimed at discouraging similar investigations. After 20 months in prison awaiting a verdict, Pasko was freed after the tribunal failed to convict him of passing classified documents to Japanese news outlets, which could have resulted in a 20-year jail sentence.

In September, Kremlin chief of staff Aleksander Voloshin sent an open letter to the editorial offices of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and USA Today, threatening to use “the full force of international law” against these media in retaliation for their reports on Kremlin links to the Bank of New York money-laundering scandal as well as other acts of corruption. The letter implied that the Kremlin would retaliate for the papers’ part in an alleged conspiracy to discredit Russia and its leader, possibly by stripping their Moscow correspondents of their credentials.

Perhaps the most serious threat to Russian press freedom in 1999 was the government’s campaign to control coverage of its military campaign against Chechen-based Islamic militants, first in Dagestan and later in Chechnya. Public support for the military action was the key to the Kremlin-backed Unity alliance’s success in the Duma race in December.

When Islamic militants made their August incursions from Chechnya into neighboring Dagestan, capturing several villages, the new Media Ministry prohibited all the major Russian television networks from airing interviews with or footage of the militant leaders. The ban was the first sign that the Kremlin would not tolerate a repetition of the Russian press’ role in turning public opinion against its losing battle with Chechen separatists in 1994Ð96, which resulted in de facto Chechen independence. During that campaign, independent broadcast media such as NTV showed graphic images of huge Russian losses, while their reporters and crews risked their lives to present the Chechen side of the story.

But in 1999, few Russian journalists resisted the Media Ministry’s ground rules or the controls that the Russian military set up to restrict coverage of its campaign to destroy the Islamic militants and recapture Chechnya. Emboldened by NATO’s tight media controls during its intervention over Kosovo last spring, the Kremlin and the military imposed severe restrictions on travel to the region.

The government found it easier to rally local journalists against the Chechen-based Islamists after blaming them for a series of deadly apartment-building explosions that rocked several Russian cities during the summer. Although Russian officials provided no concrete evidence to prove that Chechen militants were behind the bombings, they used the attacks to justify military intervention in the northern Caucasus, which had been in a state of lawlessness since 1997.

In the three years since their de facto victory over the Russian military, many Chechen warlords had turned to crime, including a lucrative hostage trade. From January 1997 to August 1999, nearly 1,100 individuals, about half of them Chechens, were abducted in Chechnya, mostly for ransom. Journalists seemed disproportionately at risk. At the height of the epidemic, in 1997, 21 journalists were kidnapped, though all had been freed by early 1998, again mostly for ransom. The kidnappers resorted to violence against hostages, even murder, sometimes including videos of torture with their ransom demands.

As a result, foreign and especially Russian journalists stayed out of Chechnya, further isolating the region. In 1999, two journalists were reported missing before the latest war began. Although a Chechen reporter working for a Russian agency was freed in June after three months in Chechen captivity, a Russian photographer who disappeared in August was still missing at year’s end.

The Russian propaganda machine fully exploited journalists’ fears of kidnapping. The military required journalists to obtain special military credentials and banned all independent travel into Chechnya without a military escort, as a “safety precaution.” In October, one Chechen journalist was abducted and freed within a week, while a Russian reporter and a French free-lance photographer were reported missing. Russian authorities claimed that both had been kidnapped, although those claims were impossible to confirm independently.

The conflict presented many dangers to journalists, not only from the threat of kidnapping, which diminished with Russian victories in the field, but from the Russian military strategy of relying on indiscriminate heavy artillery and air attacks. In October, three Chechen journalists were killed in air raids on civilian targets. However, all but a few Chechen reporters working for Western news agencies evacuated Chechnya as the Russian offensive against the capital, Grozny, and the southern mountains intensified. Some Chechen news media, such as the weekly Groznenskiy Rabochiy, resumed operations in exile in neighboring Ingushetia and Georgia, distributing issues for free among news-starved refugees.

On at least two occasions, British and American correspondents were detained by Russian forces for attempting to enter the region illegally. Journalists who slipped into Chechnya without military credentials and an escort did so at great risk. But otherwise, it was impossible to gather news independent of the official line, which minimized Russian setbacks. Eight Russian, Chechen, and European journalists working for Western news media covered the militants’ first major counterattack against Russian troops who entered Grozny in mid-December. The reporters, who included stringers for Reuters, The Associated Press, and the U.S. governmentÐfunded Radio Liberty, hid in cellars with local residents who remained in the city under siege from heavy artillery. They provided the only independent eyewitness accounts of heavy Russian casualties, published while the Russian military was still denying that the Chechen counterattack had ever happened.

The Russian leadership issued numerous statements attacking the eight reporters, who eventually made their way out of Chechnya to safety. Their war coverage was radically different from that of the generally docile Russian press. At first, only the dailies Vremya MN and Izvestia were even slightly skeptical of the official line. But as the battle for Grozny dragged on and more Russian soldiers died, some local media tried to take a more independent approach. While supporting the Kremlin’s overall strategy in Chechnya, NTV gradually offered more footage of Chechen refugees and more realistic reports of Russian losses. In apparent retaliation, on January 23, 2000, Russian officers told the network that its reporters and crews would be excluded from media pools being escorted to Russian positions in the field.

While the Kremlin’s Chechen campaign dealt a heavy blow to Russian media independence, journalists working for local media in Russia’s 88 other regions and republics (not including Chechnya) struggled against heavy-handed governors, presidents, and local officials.

“In Russia we have 89 different regions and 89 different press freedom climates,” said Igor Yakovenko, the head of the Russian Journalists’ Union, in a July interview. A study completed last year by the Glasnost Defense Foundation, the Moscow Media Law and Policy Center, and Internews ranked 81 of Russia’s 89 regions according to their press freedom conditions. Bashkortostan and Kalmykia, both led by autocrats, were listed as the worst climates for independent journalism, while Moscow was ranked at the top.

But the study revealed that every region, including Moscow and St. Petersburg, was subject to arbitrary rule that could undermine whatever gains the independent press has managed to make.

March 28
Said Isayev, Itar-Tass IMPRISONED

Late in the evening, several unidentified armed men broke into the Grozny home of Isayev, Chechnya correspondent for the Russian news agency Itar-Tass, and abducted him.

The 38-year-old Isayev had previously worked as a free-lance correspondent for the Itar-Tass news agency. Days before the kidnapping, he was promoted to staff correspondent. His colleagues said Isayev’s balanced and detailed coverage of the political situation in Chechnya, along with his recent promotion, might have angered certain Chechen politicians and prompted his kidnapping.

Immediately after learning of the kidnapping, Itar-Tass head Vitaly Ignatienko wrote to Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov asking for cooperation and support in the search for the missing reporter. On March 30, Chechen interior minister Turpal Atgeriev announced that the government did not know who had kidnapped Isayev or where he was being held.

Isayev’s kidnappers freed him on June 19 in Grozny. Family members reported only that he was in good health and that no ransom had been paid.

In an interview in the June 29 edition of the Russian daily Kommersant, Isayev said his kidnappers accused him of working as an agent of the Russian FSB security service. When he denied the charge, they questioned him about other Chechen journalists working for Russian media, calling them traitors to their people. Isayev said his captors also quizzed him about his views on various Chechen leaders.

According to Isayev, the kidnappers were personally acquainted with his brother Sharil Isayev, a Moscow-based Itar-Tass reporter. After Said Isayev’s release, Sharil declined to identify the kidnappers in an effort to protect his brother. The kidnappers apparently did not seek ransom.

June 29
Yuri Stepanov, Radio Lemma ATTACKED

Stepanov, a correspondent with the independent station Radio Lemma in Vladivostok, was attacked outside his apartment building. Stepanov was walking home at around 10:30 p.m. when he was ambushed by three unknown assailants, who jumped out of a minivan and began beating him. After he fell to the ground, one of the men kicked him in the chest and stomach and tried to drag him into the vehicle. Stepanov managed to escape. He was hospitalized briefly and spent nearly a month recuperating from injuries that included three broken ribs and a cracked skull.

The assault apparently resulted from Stepanov’s investigation of Vostoktranslot, the largest refrigerated-shipping line in the region. Stepanov was attacked soon after airing his third interview with the company’s former director, Anatoly Milashevich. During the interview, Milashevich claimed that the regional governor, Yevgeniy Nazdratenko, had sacked him because he refused to donate US$2 million to Nazdratenko’s campaign fund. Stepanov also reported that Milashevich himself had been prosecuted for mishandling the company’s finances.

CPJ protested the attack in a September 23 letter to President Boris Yeltsin. The attack on Stepanov was part of a pattern of attacks and bureaucratic harassment against Radio Lemma and its employees, apparently designed to force the station off the air. Radio Lemma is one of the few independent media in the Primorye region, where fear of retaliation has prompted many media outlets to seek official approval before running controversial reports.

July 15

Radio Lemma, one of the few independent media to broadcast critical reports on local and regional government in Vladivostok, was the target of sustained harassment and threats over a period of six months.

On July 15, the 20-year-old daughter of station director Valery Moravyov was forced into a car by two unidentified men. After telling the young woman that her father should “mind his own business,” the men released her.

Moravyov’s daughter filed a complaint with the local police. Five days later, she received an anonymous phone call at work ordering her to withdraw her complaint. When she refused, the police closed the case themselves, claiming they lacked sufficient evidence to pursue it any further.

Local authorities also threatened to shut the station down on various pretexts. A building management company turned off the electricity at Radio Lemma’s city-owned studio in Vladivostok. Citing unpaid bills, the company ordered all staff to vacate their offices by the end of August. The journalists used a gasoline-fired generator to continue broadcasting, while insisting they had paid all their bills.

On August 31, the regional commission for the Federal TV and Radio Service warned Radio Lemma that the station’s broadcast license would be revoked if it failed to broadcast 24 hours a day, as specified in its license agreement. (At the time, the station broadcast daily from 7 a.m. until midnight.) Station managers said the agreement did not in fact specify that they had to broadcast around the clock.

CPJ protested the official campaign against Radio Lemma in a September 3 letter to President Boris Yeltsin. The station was eventually evicted on November 19, when police raided the studio and claimed it was a fire hazard. Unable to find alternative studio space, Radio Lemma has been off the air ever since.

July 19
Vladimir Yatsina, Itar-Tass IMPRISONED

Yatsina, a photographer with the Itar-Tass news agency, was kidnapped in the northern Ossetian town of Nazran, near the Chechen border. His Chechen kidnappers demanded a US$2 million ransom for his release.

On August 20, CPJ sent a letter of protest to President Boris Yeltsin, arguing that press- coverage restrictions were exacerbating an already hazardous situation for journalists working in the Chechnya region.

Despite the efforts of Russian government and Itar-Tass officials to win Yatsina’s release, he was still detained as of December 14.

August 15
All media in Chechnya CENSORED

Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov announced a month-long ban on the work of all local media, except for state-owned television, in an attempt to control local coverage of the conflict between Chechen insurgents and Russian forces. The ban was largely ignored.

August 17
All Russia State TV and Radio Broadcasting Company CENSORED
ORT Russian Public TV CENSORED

The new Ministry for the Press, Television and Radio Broadcasting, and Media Affairs warned Russia’s national television networks not to broadcast interviews with any of the Islamist rebel leaders fighting a separatist war against Russia in the Caucasus region of Dagestan.

The ministry claimed that airing such interviews fueled the rebels’ “massive propaganda war” against Russia. The warning was delivered to ORT Russian Public TV, the All Russia State TV and Radio Broadcasting Company, Russian TV, NTV, and TV-6, all of which complied.

CPJ protested this blatant censorship in an August 20 letter to President Boris Yeltsin.

August 19
Sergei Zhubinsky, XXI Vek TelevisionTHREATENED, HARASSED

Zhubinsky, a reporter with the privately owned Achinsk television station XXI Vek, in the Krasnoyarsk region, received a number of anonymous telephone calls in early May, threatening him and his family. The callers ordered Zhubinsky to stop broadcasting investigative reports about corruption at the Achinsk Alumina plant. The plant employs about half the city’s working population.

The series alleged that Nail Nasyrov, the plant’s director, had embezzled company profits and defrauded the regional administration of tax revenues by selling aluminum at below-market prices. Zhubinsky also reported on lax safety standards at the plant, which were blamed for the deaths of two employees.

On August 19, Zhubinsky found an explosive device attached to the underside of his car. The bomb was set to explode when the car was moved. Zhubinsky informed the regional authorities, who managed to defuse and remove the device.

There were no death threats for about three weeks after Zhubinsky found the explosive. However, the threats resumed in early September, after the journalist went on the air to praise Krasnoyarsk governor Aleksander Lebed’s decision to fire Nasyrov for corruption. When Zhubinsky showed up at the plant to interview employees, Nasyrov’s assistant Victor Ostravlanchik threatened him personally.

October 1
Brice Fleutiaux, free-lancer MISSING

French free-lance photographer Fleutiaux disappeared in Chechnya. The Russian FSB security service subsequently released footage of an unshaven man standing in a dark room complaining in French about poor treatment by his captors. An FSB spokesman claimed that Chechen kidnappers had made the tape and turned it over to them in order to collect ransom for Fleutiaux’s release.

On October 31, the Russian channel NTV broadcast the tape. Fleutiaux’s brother, meanwhile, identified him in the video. At year’s end, Russian authorities were still insisting that the photojournalist was being held captive by a Chechen gang.

October 1
Dmitry Balburov, Moskovskiye Novosti MISSING

Balburov, a correspondent for the Moscow-based weekly Moskovskiye Novosti, was reported missing by his employers in mid-October. When he disappeared, Balburov was on a 10-day trip to cover the Chechnya conflict. Balburov’s editors last heard from him on October 4, when he called them from Nazran before leaving for the Chechen border. By year’s end, the paper had not yet received ransom demands or any other news about Balburov.

October 10
Said Isayev, Itar-Tass IMPRISONED

Grozny-based Itar-Tass correspondent Isayev was kidnapped for the second time last year (see March 28 Isayev case). A gang of unidentified men abducted Isayev and a relative, Jabrail Bakriyev, in downtown Grozny, where the reporter was covering a rally.

The two men tried to escape on October 16, but the kidnappers shot and wounded them. The kidnappers took Isayev and Bakriyev to a local hospital for treatment, then removed them over doctors’ objections.

The captives were freed the next day thanks to pressure from relatives, including Isayev’s brother Sharip, who is also a journalist. Local authorities also threatened to execute anyone convicted of kidnapping a journalist.

October 27
Supian Ependiyev, Groznenskiy Rabochiy KILLED

Ependiyev, a veteran correspondent for the independent Chechnya weekly Groznenskiy Rabochiy, was killed in a rocket attack on the Chechen capital, Grozny.

On the evening of October 27, several rockets hit a crowded outdoor market in central Grozny. About an hour after the attack, Ependiyev went to cover the carnage for his paper. As Ependiyev was leaving the site, a new round of rockets fell about 200 meters from the bazaar. He suffered severe shrapnel wounds and was taken to a Grozny hospital, where he died the next morning.

Ependiyev was one of two correspondents who remained in Grozny to cover the Russian military campaign against Islamist militants in Chechnya. Until his death, the reporter had regularly been making the dangerous trek between Grozny and the Russian city of Nazran, where his paper had relocated.

October 29
Shamil Yegayev, Nokh Cho TV KILLED
Ramzan Mezhidov, TV Tsentr KILLED

Mezhidov, a free-lance cameraman working for the Moscow-based TV Tsentr, and Yegayev, a cameraman for the independent Nokh Cho television station in Grozny, were killed in a Russian air attack on a convoy of refugees fleeing Chechnya. The journalists were covering the convoy en route from Grozny to Nazran, in neighboring Ingushetia.

As the convoy approached the Chechen town of Shaami Yurt, a Russian bomber fired several rockets from the air, hitting a busload of refugees. Mezhidov and Yegayev left their vehicle to film the carnage. As they approached the bus, a second round of Russian rockets hit a nearby truck, instantly killing Yegayev and fatally wounding Mezhidov. Mezhidov died of his injuries the next day in a local hospital.

In a December 1 letter to Russian president Boris Yeltsin, CPJ protested the apparent Russian military disregard for the security of journalists attempting to cover both sides of the conflict in Chechnya.