CPJ concerned about government’s attempts to control coverage of conflict in Chechnya

Your Excellency:

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is extremely concerned about an official warning issued by the Russian Media Ministry on Wednesday, February 26, to the Moscow-based communist, ultra-nationalist weekly Zavtra. This warning, which followed the publication of an interview with exiled Chechen separatist leader Akhmed Zakayev, is the latest in the Russian government’s ongoing attempts to control coverage of the conflict in Chechnya.

Deputy Media Minister Valery Sirazhenko sent an official warning to the weekly stating that the “material published by the newspaper incites ethnic hatred and justifies extremist activity in violation of Article 4 of the Law on Mass Media and Article 1 of the Federal Law on Combating Terrorism,” the Interfax news agency reported.

Zavtra editor-in-chief Aleksandr Prokhanov interviewed Zakayev in London, where he is in exile, and published a transcript in two February editions of Zavtra. (See: http://zavtra.ru/cgi//veil//data/zavt/protests/481/21.html and http://zavtra.ru/cgi//veil//data/zavt/protests/482/31.html.)

Under Russian law, if the newspaper receives three warnings, the Media Ministry can ask for a judicial hearing to seek a court order closing the newspaper.

Zakayev strongly criticized the Kremlin during the interview, alleging that the Kremlin sought to portray Chechens as international terrorists and had tried to silence him.

An unnamed Media Ministry spokesman told online news agency Gazeta.ru in an interview published on February 27 that the ministry was angered by “the tone of the conversation.” He said that Zakayev’s comments that “Chechens live on their own soil, while Russians are occupiers … bears a negative attitude toward Russians.” The spokesman also said that “more than once” the conflict was described “as opposition between Russians and Chechens” and that “this incites hatred between peoples.”

The Kremlin is currently seeking to extradite Zakayev for his alleged involvement in the murder of some 300 Russian soldiers in Chechnya. Denmark refused to extradite the Chechen leader to Moscow in early December 2002, citing insufficient evidence provided by Russia’s Prosecutor General’s Office.

Some Moscow-based media analysts believe that the warning may be a pretext for the Media Ministry to close Zavtra, a newspaper known for its criticism of Your Excellency, ahead of December parliamentary elections and March 2004 presidential elections.

“The communists have a lot of popular support and, as a result, Zavtra is relatively popular and tends to sell out rather quickly in the kiosks,” according to Oleg Panfilov, director of the Moscow-based press freedom group Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations. “I think that government officials are trying to cleanse the media of critical voices so that the forthcoming elections can proceed smoothly for them.”

The Media Ministry’s official warning to Zavtra appears punitive because other Moscow-based newspapers have published interviews with Zakayev without receiving a warning. The daily Kommersant printed an interview with Zakayev on December 5, 2002, with no repercussions. The twice-weekly Novaya Gazeta published interviews with Zakayev on March 11, 2003, and on December 9, 2002, also with no repercussions.

The Media Ministry’s warning to Zavtra is not the first time the Kremlin has targeted Prokhanov. In October 1993, the Kremlin issued a presidential decree banning a dozen opposition newspapers—including Prokhanov’s former newspaper Den—when partisans opposed to the rule of then president Boris Yeltsin violently clashed with government troops around Moscow.

CPJ is concerned that under Your Excellency’s leadership, the Kremlin has become increasingly hostile toward independent reporting on Chechnya, as well as to criticism of government policies. We are particularly disturbed by the Media Ministry’s politicized use of the legal system to intimidate the media and stifle political debate.

In October 2002, the Media Ministry attempted to curtail unfavorable news reporting after a large group of heavily armed Chechen rebels seized some 700 hostages in a Moscow theater. For instance, when the Moscow-based Ekho Moskvy radio station broadcast a brief interview with one of the Chechen gunmen, Media Ministry spokesman Yuri Akinshin warned media outlets not to air statements from the hostage-takers. “If this is repeated,” Akanshin said, “we reserve the right to take all proper measures, up to the termination of the activity of those media,” the Moscow-based Interfax news agency reported.

At the same time, the Media Ministry temporarily closed down Moskoviya, a Moscow television station, for allegedly promoting terrorism. And another Russian media outlet, the Moscow daily Rossiyskaya Gazeta, received a warning from the Media Ministry for publishing a photograph of the body of a young woman who was killed by the armed captors on October 23.

Earlier in the year, the Kremlin’s chief spokesman on Chechnya, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, threatened to close the Moscow bureau of the U.S. government­funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) if its new North Caucasus service broadcast “biased” news and information in the Chechen language. This followed Your Excellency’s October 2002 decision to revoke a 1991 decree issued by Yeltsin ensuring RFE/RL’s right to broadcast in the country because you were angry at the station’s coverage of the conflict in Chechnya. This move has made the station vulnerable to legal and regulatory harassment by the Media Ministry.

The government’s pattern of taking selective legal and regulatory action against media outlets that criticize government policies has done considerable harm to Russia’s press freedom record. The forthcoming December parliamentary elections and March 2004 presidential elections also mean that Russia is entering a politically sensitive period where the free flow of information is essential.

Prokhanov’s interview with Zakayev is a legitimate form of journalism that the Media Ministry should not restrict. If journalists cannot work freely and if Russian citizens do not have access to different perspectives, the elections will be flawed and Russia’s democratic credentials will be further eroded.

We urge you, Your Excellency, to ensure that the Media Ministry refrains from taking punitive action against media outlets in retaliation for coverage that is criticizes your government.

Thank you for your attention to these urgent matters. We await your reply.


Joel Simon
Acting Director