The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an independent, nonpartisan organization dedicated to defending press freedom worldwide, is extremely concerned about deteriorating press freedom conditions in Russia. Recent steps taken by the Federal Security Service (FSB) to harass and intimidate independent journalists in retaliation for their work are particularly troubling. While FSB officials say they are safeguarding national security, journalists say they have become targets for reporting on government corruption and FSB abuses.
On December 29, 2003, the FSB intercepted a truck delivering 4,400 copies of a book titled The FSB Blows Up Russia from a printer in neighboring Latvia to the independent Moscow news agency Prima. Prima frequently covers human rights issues and planned to distribute the shipment to bookshops in Moscow. Police officers pulled the truck over in the outskirts of the capital, Moscow, and the FSB confiscated all 4,400 books, claiming they contained “anti-state propaganda,” the independent Moscow radio station Ekho Moskvy reported.
According to local press reports, the book, written by former FSB officer Aleksandr Litvinenko and émigré-historian Yuri Felshtinsky, contains circumstantial evidence suggesting that the FSB organized a series of 1999 apartment bombings in Moscow and the southern city of Volgodonsk that the government blamed on Chechen rebels in an alleged attempt to bolster your image as a law-and-order candidate ahead of March 2000 presidential elections.
The FSB launched a criminal investigation into the book for allegedly revealing state secrets, and the FSB’s Moscow investigative bureau called Prima Editor-in-Chief Aleksandr Podrabinek in for questioning on January 28. FSB officers asked Podrabinek about the book’s Latvian printer, Giness, and Prima’s contract with the company for transporting the books. Podrabinek refused to answer the questions because, he said, they had no bearing on the criminal inquiry into revealing state secrets. “The details they [FSB] asked me had nothing to do with the stated purpose of the investigation,” Podrabinek told CPJ in a telephone interview on Tuesday, February 3.
FSB officials accused Podrabinek of obstructing the investigation by refusing to answer their questions but have not yet pressed criminal charges against him. As of yet, there are no defendants in the case and the books remain impounded “so that the state secret would not be distributed any further,” senior FSB investigator Aleksandr Soyma said, according to the independent Russian daily Izvestiya.
In another disturbing case, the FSB sought to ban distribution of the September 2003, Number 33, edition of the independent Moscow weekly Versiya, a newspaper known for exposing government corruption. FSB investigators launched a criminal case against Versiya for allegedly revealing state secrets in an article reporting on the technical characteristics of new, special-task submarines, one of which was operating near the nuclear submarine Kursk when it sank in August 2000. FSB agents raided the newspaper on January 29, seizing the remaining copies of the September 2003 edition from the office.
Versiya National Security Editor Andrey Soldatov told CPJ in a telephone interview on Tuesday that the article in question, titled “Na Dne” (At the Bottom) and written by journalist Vadim Saranov, was based on publicly available information. In a telephone interview with CPJ yesterday, Saranov confirmed that he had not used confidential sources, and that “anybody else who wanted that kind of information would have been able to get it.” Versiya Editor-in-Chief Anna Bakshitskaya said the staff also believes that the FSB raid came in retaliation for articles written by Saranov in the last 18 months that exposed corruption and theft in the Russian navy, Ekho Moskvy reported.
The January raid on Versiya‘s office is the third such action against the weekly in three years. A September 2000 FSB raid was prompted by an August 2000 article about the sinking of Kursk. In November 2002, the FSB raided the paper’s offices after it published an investigation into the activities of Russian security services during the October 2002 Nord-Ost theater hostage crisis in Moscow, during which more than 100 people died after the government used nerve gas to disarm Chechen rebels who were holding civilians hostage. The FSB raids have not led to any prosecutions or convictions because of a lack of evidence against the publication. However, staff believe that the raids are a form of ongoing harassment and intimidation, Soldatov said.
CPJ contacted an FSB press officer in Moscow yesterday for comment on these two cases, but the individual who answered the phone refused to identify himself and said he was not authorized to provide information to foreigners or make comments over the phone.
The FSB has consistently played a central role in Russia’s most egregious press freedom violations. For example, before the independent Moscow television station NTV was taken over by the government-controlled oil company Gazprom, armed FSB agents and the tax police raided the headquarters of NTV’s holding company, Media-Most. The FSB was also responsible for jailing two journalists, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Andrei Babitsky and Boyevaya Vakhta‘s Grigory Pasko. In addition, the FSB has a long record of conducting surveillance against both local and international journalists covering the conflict in Chechnya, including, in some cases, detaining, questioning, and deporting journalists working in the region.
Your Excellency, these recent events are alarming because they appear to reflect an escalation of the FSB’s campaign of intimidation and harassment against Russia’s independent media. Overall, this policy represents a dramatic step away from democracy, freedom of expression, and public access to information. We call on you to reverse these polices and improve your country’s compliance with international press freedom standards. We also urge you to do everything within your power to see that the FSB stops its harassment of both Prima news agency and Versiya newspaper.
Thank you for your attention to this urgent matter. We await your reply.