Attacks on the Press 2004: Russia


A midyear purge of independent voices on state television and an alarming suppression of news coverage during the Beslan hostage crisis marked a year in which Russian President Vladimir Putin increasingly exerted Soviet-style control over the media. Using intelligence agents and an array of politicized state agencies, Putin pushed for an obedient and patriotic press in keeping with his ever tightening grip on Russia’s deteriorating democracy.

From Chechnya to Moscow, attacks on the press have been encouraged by a climate of lawlessness. Two journalists were killed in 2004, one in a bombing by Chechen rebels, and the other in a well-orchestrated assassination on the streets of Moscow. In the five years since Putin took power, 11 journalists have been killed in contract-style slayings, and none of their killers have been brought to justice.

Critical reporting on the president’s record, government corruption, terrorism, and the war in Chechnya has become rare since Putin took office. Overt pressure by the Federal Security Service (FSB), bureaucratic obstruction, politicized lawsuits, and hostile corporate takeovers have enabled the Kremlin to intimidate and silence many of its critics.

The Kremlin has consolidated national broadcast media under its authority in the last four years, with independent television stations shuttered by the government or swallowed up by pro-government businesses. The state gas monopoly Gazprom carried out a hostile takeover of the national television channel NTV in April 2001. After NTV journalists moved to TV-6 to continue their independent reporting, that station was closed by court order in January 2002. When the journalists moved to yet another station, TVS, the Media Ministry yanked that channel off the air in June 2003.

The country’s remaining national television channels—state-run Rossiya and Channel One, along with NTV—have revived the old Soviet approach to news reporting, focusing heavily on Putin’s daily meetings with his Cabinet and international leaders. Major national television stations portray Putin as a decisive leader and a stabilizing force while suppressing information about the war in Chechnya, incompetence in the security services, and the government’s legal assault against the oil giant Yukos.

Political control over state television coverage has become so overt that managers have said openly that their main goal is to promote Putin and his policies. The Kremlin appointed senior government officials and political loyalists to run the national broadcasters; some of them meet on a weekly basis with Putin’s aides to discuss editorial policies. This arrangement has produced sterile daily news programs and weekly current affairs shows that please their most important audience—the president and his aides.

The Kremlin has allowed a number of independent newspapers and news Web sites to continue to engage in lively debate and government criticism, primarily because they lack national political influence, reaching only a small audience of urban, educated elites.

The Kremlin heavily managed news coverage of the March presidential election. Putin summoned national television executives to a meeting in January to discuss editorial plans for the campaign; TV news coverage focused primarily on Putin’s daily activities, while his six opponents received only occasional, often negative coverage.

The politically obedient Central Elections Commission (CEC) failed to enforce election laws requiring balanced media coverage of candidates. In mid-February, Putin’s 30-minute opening campaign speech was broadcast live on Rossiya, and portions were repeatedly rebroadcast on the national channels without the CEC’s intervention. In March, the three national channels refused to air a campaign ad from Putin’s main opponent, claiming they needed Putin’s consent to broadcast an ad containing his image.

Monitors from the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe criticized the election—in which Putin won a second four-year term with 71 percent of the vote—concluding that media bias and election-related abuses “did not adequately reflect … a healthy democratic election.”

Three weeks before the vote, Putin surprised the country by reshuffling his entire Cabinet, appointing a 54-year-old professor of music theory, Aleksandr Sokolov, to head the newly created Ministry of Culture and Media. The ministry and members of Parliament spent much of the year preparing a media bill for consideration in 2005 to replace the existing law, which was passed in 1991 and enshrined press freedom in Russia’s Civil Code. Few details of the bill have been publicly disclosed, but many believe that the measure will impose broad new restrictions.

In the late spring and early summer, the Kremlin significantly curtailed the editorial independence of NTV. In late May, NTV Deputy Director Aleksandr Gerasimov yanked a brief interview with the widow of a Chechen separatist leader from the news program “Namedni” (Recently) at the request of the FSB. Weeks later, NTV canceled “Namedni” entirely and dismissed anchor Leonid Parfyonov after he protested the editorial interference. In July, the station’s new, pro-Kremlin, manager, Vladimir Kulistikov, eliminated the popular current affairs talk show “Svoboda Slova” (Freedom of Speech) and several other current affairs programs.

Independent journalists who directly criticized the Kremlin faced threats and intimidation. In February, a bomb exploded just outside the Moscow apartment door of Yelena Tregubova, an independent journalist who had recently written a controversial best-selling book criticizing the Kremlin. Tregubova escaped injury.

The Kremlin maintained its ironfisted control on information coming from 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, making it very difficult to interview citizens or conduct independent reporting. Reporters who dared to work unescorted ran the risk of being kidnapped or attacked by Chechen rebels.

Police reported no progress in the investigation into the July 2003 abduction in neighboring Ingushetia of Ali Astamirov, an Agence France-Presse correspondent who had endured months of police and FSB harassment in retaliation for his reporting in Chechnya.

The Foreign Ministry continued to obstruct international news coverage of the war by denying visas to some foreign correspondents, and accreditation to local journalists working for foreign news agencies. The ministry, for example, refused to issue credentials to journalists from the North Caucasus service of U.S. government–funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). In February, Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen criticized Russian authorities for denying a visa to Vibeke Sperling, a journalist for the independent Copenhagen daily Politiken (Politician) who had criticized human rights abuses in Chechnya. In September, the Kremlin successfully pressured Lithuania to close the pro-independence Chechen news Web site KavkazCenter, which was based there.

Journalists who refused to abide by the Kremlin’s strict policies faced retribution from police and security officials. FSB agents confiscated notes and equipment from Rebecca Santana, Moscow correspondent for Cox Newspapers, and police abducted her fixer for a month after the two traveled to Chechnya without government supervision. Police shuttered the independent Chechen newspaper Chechenskoye Obshchestvo (Chechen Society) at the height of a local election campaign in August, apparently in retaliation for the newspaper’s reporting on human rights abuses by security forces. In November, FSB agents detained Japanese freelance journalist Kosuke Tsuneoka for a week on an alleged visa violation and expelled him from the country after he interviewed Chechen refugees.

In some instances, security forces manufactured criminal cases to silence journalists reporting on the war in Chechnya. In August, a dozen FSB agents in North Ossetia raided the home and office of Yuri Bagrov, a local reporter for The Associated Press. Bagrov was convicted in December of forging a document to receive Russian citizenship and fined 15,000 rubles (US$540). His passport was also invalidated, he said, making him vulnerable to deportation as a convicted criminal. Journalists were convinced that authorities prosecuted Bagrov to stop him from reporting on politically embarrassing information, such as military casualty figures.

Reporting on terrorism became acutely sensitive, because every new attack undermined Putin’s claim that Russia was winning the war against the separatist rebels in Chechnya. Reaction to the midair explosions of two commercial airliners in August terror strikes illustrated the sensitivity. As the three national television channels downplayed the significance of the bombings, the Kremlin pressured print journalists not to refer to them as terrorist attacks.

In September, when a group of heavily armed fighters seized some 1,200 children, parents, and teachers in a middle school in the town of Beslan in the southern republic of Ossetia, the Kremlin used aggressive measures against the press reminiscent of Soviet times.

Security agents prevented several journalists who have criticized the Kremlin’s Caucasus policies from reaching Beslan. Authorities at a Moscow airport detained RFE/RL correspondent Andrei Babitsky on specious charges of “hooliganism.” The FSB detained a film crew from the independent Georgian TV station Rustavi-2 and drugged one of the journalists while she was being questioned.

Anna Politkovskaya, a prominent war correspondent with the independent Moscow newspaper Novaya Gazeta (New Gazette), was felled by a mysterious case of poisoning after drinking tea on an airline flight to cover the Beslan crisis. The toxin could not be identified because medical staff destroyed her blood tests, RFE/RL reported.

The three national television channels provided only limited coverage of the 52-hour crisis—and avoided mentioning that the hostage-takers were seeking withdrawal of Russian forces from Chechnya. Local authorities repeatedly misled reporters about the number of hostages, while many journalists on the scene received written instructions to downplay the crisis and use government-approved terminology.

When a firefight between security forces and the hostage-takers erupted, ending the standoff with some 330 deaths, Rossiya and Channel One broadcast only brief reports on the crisis, wedged around soap operas and spy thrillers; NTV broadcast some footage with delays, interruptions, and little interpretation about what was happening. The poor television coverage forced many Russians to rely on news Web sites and the independent Moscow radio station Ekho Moskvy, which has retained its editorial independence despite having the state gas monopoly Gazprom as a majority stakeholder.

Raf Shakirov, editor-in-chief of the leading daily Izvestia (News), was forced to resign after government officials angered by the paper’s coverage of Beslan pressured the daily’s owner, the pro-Kremlin Prof Media. Izvestia published graphic photos and was one of the first to criticize the government for misrepresenting the number of hostages.

Putin responded to the hostage crisis with a series of sweeping changes: strengthening the security services, allowing the Kremlin to appoint regional governors, and limiting independent parliamentary candidacies. Together, the measures will centralize control in a way unprecedented since the fall of communism.

In addition to these overt tactics to control the media, pro-Kremlin forces also find indirect pressure to be useful. In October, the Moscow Arbitration Court ordered the publisher of the independent Moscow daily Kommersant (Businessman) to pay 321 million rubles (US$11.7 million) in damages to Alfa-Bank for an article describing a line of customers at the bank withdrawing money during the country’s summer banking woes. Analysts suggested that the bank, part of pro-Kremlin oligarch Mikhail Fridman’s Alfa Group, was trying to put out of business one of the few remaining newspapers that directly criticized the government. In early January 2005, an appellate court upheld the ruling and slightly reduced the damages to 300 million rubles (US$10.8 million).

Journalists were exposed to extreme physical danger as well. In May, a bomb planted by Chechen rebels in Chechnya’s capital, Grozny, killed Adlan Khasanov, a cameraman working for the British news agency Reuters, while he was photographing Chechnya’s president.

In July, gunmen in Moscow shot and killed Paul Klebnikov, an investigative writer and the first editor of the new magazine Forbes Russia. A CPJ delegation met with senior U.S. and Russian officials in Washington, D.C., and urged them to bring Klebnikov’s killers to justice. By November, Russian authorities had arrested three suspects in the case, but they provided only limited information on how the suspects were tied to the murder. That same month, CPJ honored Klebnikov by posthumously giving him an International Press Freedom Award.

For years, independent Russian journalists have been murdered with impunity because police, prosecutors, and courts have failed to investigate and prosecute the crimes properly. One of the few cases that have gone to trial in the last decade—the October 1994 assassination of Dmitry Kholodov, a reporter for the independent newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets (The Moscow Komsomol)—has yet to produce a conviction. In June, the Moscow Military District Court acquitted six suspects for a second time.

Authorities in the Volga River city of Togliatti reported no progress in solving the murders of two consecutive chief editors of Tolyattinskoye Obozreniye (Togliatti Observer), which was known for its coverage of organized crime and government corruption. Valery Ivanov was killed in 2002; Aleksei Sidorov in 2003. After traveling to Togliatti in June to meet with prosecutors, journalists, and relatives of the slain editors, CPJ sent a detailed letter to Putin outlining serious problems in the government’s handling of the cases. A factory welder charged in Sidorov’s murder was acquitted in October, confirming suspicions by journalists and the Sidorov family that authorities were not pursuing the true killer. CPJ issued a statement calling on prosecutors to initiate a new—and more credible—investigation.

Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov and other ministers ended 2004 with a nationally televised Cabinet meeting in which they criticized journalists for ruining Russia’s image and signaled their intent to further tighten government control over the media. “Negative information is being imposed, and this is flooding television and printed publications,” Fradkov said during the December 16 session, according to local press reports. The Ministry of Culture and Media was told to develop programming to promote patriotism among the nation’s youth, and to ensure that television coverage of Russia is more “positive” in 2005.