New York, May 12, 2000 — Russian journalists and politicians expressed outrage over yesterday’s commando-style police raid on the offices of a media company that has often been critical of Russian government policy, according to news reports.
The influential centrist daily Izvestiya warned that police searches could ” become a prologue to serious problems with freedom of speech,” while former prime minister Sergei Kiriyenko reportedly described the raid as “a public act of intimidation, discrediting the government.” Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov said in response to the raid that Russia “faces a real danger of seeing its freedom of the press stifled,” according to the Interfax news agency.
“The raid by masked men armed with machine guns into the company’s building has prompted all-round dismay,” said former prime minister Yevgeni Primakov. Even journalists employed by media belonging to Media-Most’s arch-rival, business tycoon Boris Berezovsky, said the authorities had overstepped the mark. The Berezovsky-owned daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta editorialized today that the attack “was clearly ill-conceived from the viewpoint of its possible negative impact on public opinion.”
In its first reaction to the uproar, meanwhile, the Kremlin issued a statement reaffirming president Vladimir Putin’s support for freedom of speech. (At the time of the raid, Putin was in the Kremlin meeting with U.S. media magnate Ted Turner.)
Up to 40 investigators and police commandos, some dressed in ski masks and camouflage and carrying submachine guns, arrived at the Moscow headquarters of Media-Most at 9.30 a.m. on May 11. Police searched the company’s offices for over 12 hours, NTV spokesperson Tatyana Blinova told CPJ. The police left in the late evening, laden with boxes of documents, video cassettes, and computer parts.
Media-Most believes the raid was “a show of force,” Blinova said. “The security agencies do not like our coverage of Chechnya,” she added, “nor our investigations into government corruption.”
Media-Most, which is headed by business tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky, owns NTV Television, Ekho Moskvy radio, the daily newspaper Segodnya, and the weekly news magazine Itogi.
According to Russian news agencies, the Kremlin said today in a statement that “the president is firmly convinced that freedom of speech and freedom of the media are immutable values.” The statement added that Putin believed everyone was equal before the law, no matter what business they were in.
Officials have given contradictory explanations for the raid. Yesterday, government sources said it was connected to an investigation into irregularities at the Ministry of Finance. Today, officials said the search was part of a criminal investigation against Media-Most. A spokesperson for the Federal Security Service (FSB) variously described the case as involving a financial offence and as being connected with Media-Most’s alleged use of illegal listening devices.
Blinova said the company’s legal office was looking into filing a lawsuit against FSB spokesman Aleksander Zdanovich, who made the allegations of illegal bugging against Media-Most.
CPJ Europe program coordinator Emma Gray condemned the raid. “Violence and intimidation of a media company have no place in a democratic society,” she said. “We call on Russian authorities to explain their actions without delay.”