Independent coverage obstructed in Beslan; detentions, harassment reported

New York, September 7, 2004— Independent media coverage of last week’s hostage crisis in Beslan, Russia, was obstructed several times by detentions or harassment, the Committee to Protect Journalists has found.

Thirty to 40 heavily armed fighters, allegedly of Chechen, Ingush and North Ossetian origin, took more than 1,000 children, parents and teachers hostage on September 1 in Beslan’s Middle School No. 1. More than 400 died and hundreds more were injured two days later in the small city in the southern Russian republic of North Ossetia.

Raf Shakirov, editor-in-chief of the leading daily Izvestiya, resigned from his post yesterday in a dispute over the newspaper’s September 4 edition, which featured eight pages of coverage of the school massacre. The front page featured a large photo of an anguished man carrying a wounded child.

Shakirov said he was forced to resign by ownership after the issue was published, the Russian Service of the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reported. Rafael Akopov, general director of Prof-Media, which owns a controlling interest in Izvestiya, said the edition was unnecessarily graphic, the Moscow-based business daily Vedomosti reported.

Vladimir Potanin, a metals tycoon with close ties to the Kremlin, owns Prof-Media.

The resignation by Shakirov, considered one of Russia’s leading journalists, also came two days after Izvestiya criticized the Putin administration’s handling of the crisis—and Russian state television’s coverage, which Izvetiya staff saw as censored. The paper also criticized Russian officials’ original assertion that the hostages numbered about 350—a figure significantly lower than what proved true.

In a separate case, authorities detained two independent television journalists covering the crisis. Correspondent Nana Lezhava and cameraman Levan Tetvadze, both with the Georgian independent television station Rustavi-2, were arrested September 4 in Beslan.

Lezhava and Tetvadze were taken into custody by several police officers in the early afternoon. According to local reports, they were forced into a car and taken to a local police station, where they were stripped of their personal belongings, mobile phones and broadcasting equipment.

The journalists were held incommunicado for 12 hours despite numerous inquiries from the Georgian embassy in Russia, Internews reported.

Lezhava and Tetvadze were charged with crossing into Russian illegally, even though an agreement between Russia and Georgia allowed them to travel without visas as residents of the Kazbegi region, Internews reported.

The journalists were still being held today in a detention facility in Vladikavkaz, the capital of North Ossetia, Zviad Pochkhua, president of the Independent Association of Georgian Journalists (IAGJ) told CPJ.

Yesterday, authorities detained a third independent journalist, Amr Abdul Hamid, Moscow bureau chief of the Dubai-based satellite television channel Al-Arabiya.

Al-Arabiya said Hamid was returning from Beslan to Moscow when Russian authorities arrested him at the Mineralnye Vody airport northwest of Chechnya. Police said officers found a bullet from a machine gun in Hamid’s luggage, the independent daily Kommersant said. Al-Arabiya said it was told Hamid would be held for two days.

Last week, prominent Russian journalists Anna Politkovskaya, a correspondent for the Moscow-based newspaper Novaya Gazeta, and Andrei Babitsky, a correspondent for the Russian Service of RFE/RL, were also prevented from covering the Beslan crisis.

Politkovskaya was reportedly poisoned en route to Beslan on September 1. Doctors found a poison of a biological origin in her bloodstream, probably ingested through food or drink, a Novaya Gazeta staff member told CPJ today. Medical personnel were still trying to determine whether the poisoning was deliberate, the staffer said. Politkovskaya was out of the hospital but still feels weak, her colleagues said.

Babitsky was sentenced to five days in prison for “hooliganism” by a Moscow Court on September 3. (See CPJ alert here). He was released on September 4 after his lawyer appealed the decision. However, charges against him stand and he has been ordered to pay a 1,000 ruble fine.