Attacks on the Press 2003: Russia

Russian president Vladimir Putin and his coterie of former intelligence officials pressed ahead in 2003 with his vision of a “dictatorship of the law” in Russia to create a “managed democracy.” Putin’s goal of an obedient and patriotic press meant that the Kremlin continued using various branches of the politicized state bureaucracy to rein in the independent media.

While the independent media continued to provide a certain diversity of views, direct criticism of the president, as well as critical reporting on government corruption or on the war in Chechnya, has become rare since Putin took office in December 1999. A shift from blatant pressures to more subtle and covert tactics, such as politicized lawsuits and hostile corporate takeovers by businessmen with close ties to Putin, has allowed the Kremlin to intimidate or silence critics in the media with minimal impact on the country’s international image. Meanwhile, the murder, imprisonment, and harassment of independent journalists throughout Russia’s provinces continued in 2003.

U.S. and European governments were largely silent in response to the Kremlin’s crackdown on the media. In September, U.S. President George W. Bush shocked even some of his conservative supporters when he called Russia “a country in which democracy and freedom and rule of law thrive.”

In early 2003, authorities took advantage of the fear generated by the October 2002 “Nord-Ost” hostage crisis–during which Chechen rebels took over a crowded Moscow theater–by cracking down on media outlets that covered the government’s sloppy response to the crisis, which ended with the deaths of 120 civilians when Russian forces stormed the building. In January, officials from the government-controlled gas giant Gazprom dismissed Boris Jordan, director of the national television station NTV, because of the station’s aggressive coverage of the hostage crisis. In the following months, senior officials pushed national broadcast media executives to draft a vaguely worded “Anti-Terrorism Convention” committing them to restrict their coverage of terrorism and antiterrorist government operations. The executives signed the measure in April.

The Kremlin also continued to consolidate the national broadcast media under the authority of the state and powerful businesses with links to Putin. Since taking office, Putin and his allies have closed or taken control of all independent national television stations that had previously provided Russia’s citizens with alternative sources of news. On June 21, the Media Ministry pulled the independent television station TVS off the air without obtaining a court order and replaced it with Sport TV, a state-run sports channel.

Prior to being pulled off the air, TVS had been paralyzed for months by fierce competition between two groups of rival shareholders led by aluminum tycoon Oleg Deripaska and Anatoly Chubais, a reformist politician and head of Russia’s national electricity grid. Deripaska, who has close ties to the Kremlin, finally bought out Chubais in early June but failed to provide funds for the continued operation of the debt-ridden station. TVS Editor-in-Chief Yevgeny Kiselyov accused shareholders of bankrupting the station to please the Kremlin.

The country’s remaining national television channels–state-run Rossiya and Channel One and, to a lesser extent, the state-controlled NTV–drifted toward Soviet-style reporting by emphasizing positive news and focusing heavily on Putin’s meetings with his Cabinet and international leaders. Major national television stations portrayed Putin as a stabilizing force following the political upheaval and economic chaos that had characterized President Boris Yeltsin’s rule in the 1990s.

The government continued to persecute journalists who exposed corruption and wrongdoing in the country’s powerful military, police, and security ministries. Grigory Pasko, a former military reporter for the Pacific Fleet’s newspaper Boyevaya Vakhta, served two-and-a-half years in prison after being wrongfully convicted for treason in December 2001. The charges against Pasko came after he reported on environmental abuses committed by the military. Pasko was released in January 2003, but authorities denied him a travel passport in March. In August, the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal challenging his criminal conviction, and a Moscow court upheld the ruling denying him a passport.

Police officers continued to abuse journalists who investigated police activities or criticized law enforcement officials. In February, an Interior Ministry unit in the Chechen capital, Grozny, detained and assaulted Zamid Ayubov, a journalist with the local pro-Russian administration’s thrice-weekly Vozrozhdeniye Chechni, while he was researching the activities of police units on evening patrols. In May, some 40 police officers fired tear gas and stormed the temporary office of the opposition radio station Krasnaya Armiya in the city of Noyabrsk in the central Ural Region. The attack came days after the station supported an opposition candidate in the May 4 elections. Police officers handcuffed, assaulted, and detained staff members for several hours.

The Kremlin maintained its information embargo on the southern republic of Chechnya, restricting the ability of Russian and foreign correspondents to report independently on the war’s devastation. Journalists were required to travel with elaborate police escorts, which, along with the fear of being kidnapped by Chechen rebels, made it difficult to meet and interview citizens or do other independent reporting. During 2003, the Kremlin pressed neighboring Estonia and Lithuania to close the pro-independence Chechen Web site The site changed its Internet service provider several times during 2003 because of lawsuits filed by government officials seeking its closure in response to Russian concerns but continued operating at year’s end. Meanwhile, the Media Ministry issued an official warning to the Moscow-based ultranationalist weekly Zavtra on February 26 for publishing an interview with an exiled Chechen separatist leader.

Despite a public relations campaign by the Kremlin claiming that life in Chechnya is returning to normal, journalists trying to report on the conflict remain at serious risk. At year’s end, police had not reported any progress in investigating the July 2003 disappearance of Ali Astamirov, an Agence France-Presse correspondent. Unknown armed assailants abducted Astamirov in Ingushetia, a southern republic neighboring Chechnya. Prior to his kidnapping, police officers and agents from the Federal Security Service (FSB) had repeatedly harassed Astamirov and obstructed his coverage of the ongoing conflict in Chechnya.

Judges and prosecutors often colluded to shield individuals who harassed journalists. In March, the prosecutor’s office in the Siberian city of Nizhnevartovsk cleared a military officer accused of sending death threats to Anna Politkovskaya, a war correspondent covering Chechnya for the Moscow-based newspaper Novaya Gazeta. Politkovskaya began receiving threatening e-mails in September 2001 after she wrote an article reporting that the military officer had committed atrocities against civilians in Chechnya.

Only in very rare cases did courts protect journalists from persecution. In July, a district court in the Urals city of Perm acquitted two crime reporters for the local independent newspaper Zvezda after the FSB accused them of revealing state secrets in an October 2002 article about a corrupt FSB informant.

Russia’s Criminal Code contains defamation laws that are used to stifle critical reporting. German Galkin, the publisher of Rabochaya Gazeta and deputy chief editor of Vecherny Chelyabinsk, both opposition newspapers in the southern Urals city of Chelyabinsk, was convicted of criminal defamation on August 15, 2003, in a trial that was closed to the public. Galkin was sentenced to one year in a labor camp for allegedly writing anonymous articles for Rabochaya Gazeta about misspending by the Chelyabinsk regional administration. In November, after CPJ and other press freedom groups protested Galkin’s imprisonment, the Chelyabinsk Regional Court reduced Galkin’s sentence to one year of probation, and he was released from prison.

In advance of the December 2003 parliamentary elections and March 2004 presidential elections, the Kremlin continued to tighten already stringent legal and bureaucratic controls over the domestic press. The Parliament passed media legislation in June, which Putin subsequently signed, that grants broad, excessive, and arbitrary authority to the Media Ministry, Central Election Commission (CEC), and regional electoral commissions to close media outlets for printing or broadcasting “biased” political commentary during the elections. While the Supreme Court struck down part of the law in October, many journalists had already turned to self-censorship, and editors curtailed coverage of the election campaigns to protect themselves from legal action.

At the same time, Russian press groups criticized the CEC and regional election commissions for their hypocrisy because they failed to sanction Rossiya and Channel One for improperly promoting pro-Kremlin parties such as United Russia. Government officials who used the state’s vast resources to promote Putin’s allies also remained untouched. In the end, United Russia and two other pro-Kremlin parties came out on top in the parliamentary elections, guaranteeing Putin a loyal and subservient Parliament. The generally cautious Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, a Vienna-based international organization that monitors elections, characterized the poll as “fundamentally distorted” and a “regression in the democratization process.”

Regional elections held in Russia’s provinces throughout 2003 also favored the Kremlin. Akhmad Kadyrov, a pro-Kremlin candidate in Chechnya’s October presidential election, won easily after compliant courts and elections regulators disqualified his most serious competitors.

Despite the Kremlin’s success at the polls and in subordinating much of the media, at year’s end, authorities continued pressuring journalists, often in underhanded ways. In early November, journalist Pavel Felgenhauer reported that a Kremlin official had mailed documents to his editor at the independent Moscow daily Moskovsky Komsomolets calling him a “sympathizer” of Putin’s political rival, exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky. In mid-November, half a dozen of Moscow’s prominent editors and media executives from independent media outlets received letters from the Prosecutor General’s Office summoning them for immediate questioning about their organizations’ finances. The Prosecutor General’s Office denied sending the letters.

Even films and books addressing politically sensitive topics were increasingly deemed unacceptable. In October, a Moscow movie theater canceled a Chechnya film festival after being pressured by FSB agents. That same month, Novaya Gazeta‘s Politkovskaya reported that her invitation to participate in a panel discussion on Chechnya at the Frankfurt Book Fair was withdrawn due to complaints made by Russian authorities. In November, NTV director Nikolai Senkevich canceled a program about Yelena Tregubova, a former Kremlin reporter who wrote a book criticizing the presidential press office for its aggressive management of the media. In December, police and FSB agents seized thousands of copies of a controversial new book implicating the FSB in a series of bombings that struck several Russian cities in 1999.

Journalists in Russia’s provinces remained particularly exposed to danger and violence. During 2003, one journalist was killed because of his profession, and a second journalist may have been targeted for his work. In October, Aleksei Sidorov, editor-in-chief of the independent newspaper Tolyatinskoye Obozreniye in the Volga River city of Togliatti, was stabbed to death outside his home because of his paper’s coverage of organized crime and government corruption. He was the newspaper’s second editor-in-chief to be murdered in 18 months. A second journalist, Dmitry Shvets, deputy director of the independent TV-21 station in the northern city of Murmansk, was shot dead outside the station in April, possibly because of TV-21’s reporting on a mayoral candidate’s links to organized crime.

For years, independent Russian journalists have been murdered with impunity because police, prosecutors, and courts have failed to properly investigate and prosecute these crimes. More than a dozen journalists have been killed in Russia during Putin’s four years as president, and none of their murderers has been brought to justice. One of the few cases that has gone to trial during the last decade, the October 1994 assassination of Dmitry Kholodov, a reporter for the independent newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets who had investigated corruption in the Defense Ministry, took six years to go before the courts and has yet to produce a conviction. In May 2003, the Military Collegium of Russia’s Supreme Court overturned the June 2002 acquittal of six suspects by the Moscow Circuit Military Court and ordered a retrial. Court hearings resumed in August, and no significant developments in the Kholodov case had been reported by year’s end.