On March 29, Igor Zotov, a deputy chief editor of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, which is majority owned by Boris Berezovsky, received a summons from the Moscow Prosecutor’s Office asking him to appear today (April 1) to be charged with libel. The charges are connected to an article published in the newspaper last November alleging that the chairman of the Moscow City Court, Olga Yegorova, and two federal judges had taken bribes in connection with the criminal case against Anatoly Bykov, former head of the Krasnoyarsk Aluminum Factory, who is standing trial on charges of ordering the murder of a business associate (Russian agencies, March 30).
The offending article, which was written by a freelance journalist, not a full-time Nezavisimaya Gazeta staffer, alleged that the judges were offered US$1 million to allow Bykov out of prison on bail so that he could than escape abroad. It cited as its source unnamed “reliable sources” in the Interior Ministry (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, November 27, 2001). Last December 20, the Moscow Prosecutor’s Office, at Yegorova’s request, launched a criminal investigation into alleged libel by the paper. Six days later prosecutors seized documents from Nezavisimaya Gazeta’s editorial offices. Six employees of the paper were subsequently called in for questioning (Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations [Cjes.ru], March 29).
It is not clear precisely what connection Zotov had to the offending article. Besides being one of Nezavisimaya Gazeta’s three deputy chief editors, he is also chief editor of the paper’s book review section, “Ex libris NG.” The paper issued a statement last week charging that the case against Zotov is politically motivated. “In essence, a person who has no connection whatsoever to criminal transgressions is being subjected to criminal prosecution,” the statement read. “Behind all this is big politics.” The paper’s editor-in-chief, Tat’yana Koshkareva, said she believed the authorities wanted to make Zotov a “hostage,” and compared his situation to that of Anton Titov, financial director for Vladimir Gusinsky’s Media-Most group, who was charged along with Gusinsky with large-scale fraud and sent to prison more than a year ago, where he remains. The Russian chapter of the PEN-Center, the international writer’s organization, seconded Koshkareva’s allegations of political persecution. The group issued a statement protesting the “persecution” of Nezavisimaya Gazeta in general and Zotov in particular (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 30).
The PEN-Center statement noted that Zotov had covered for the paper the March 5 showing in London of Berezovsky’s documentary film “Attack on Russia,” which alleges that Russia’s special services were behind the September 1999 terrorist bombings of apartment buildings in Moscow and Volgodonsk, which killed hundreds of people (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 7). Against this backdrop, it is worth recalling that Novaya Gazeta, a biweekly which, like Nezavisimaya Gazeta, is critical of President Vladimir Putin, was recently fined US$1.5 million after losing two libel cases, one involving an article alleging that the top judge in the Krasnodar region was living beyond his means, the other involving an article alleging that Mezhprombank, which reportedly has close relations with the Kremlin, was involved in the Bank of New York money laundering scandal (Moscow Times, March 19; see also the Monitor, March 28).
The overall sense that the Russian authorities are putting increasing pressure on the non-state media was made more palpable by a comment last week from Yevgeny Primakov, the former prime minister who currently heads the non-governmental Chamber of Commerce and Industry and is also one of the heads of Media-Socium, the non-commercial partnership which won last week’s tender for the broadcast license previously held by Berezovsky’s TV-6. Appearing at a press conference with his fellow Media-Socium head, Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs chief Arkady Volsky, and Yevgeny Kiselev, the former TV-6 general director who will be chief editor at Media-Socium’s new channel, Primakov said he hoped that the agreement he and Volsky plan to sign with Kiselev and his team of journalists will provide for “a certain degree of censorship.” Reminded by Kiselev that Russian law prohibits censorship, Primakov said the censorship he had in mind “must be internal,” not “imposed from outside.” “Call it self-censorship, if you like,” Primakov said. “There is nothing dangerous about that, on the contrary, self-censorship is a guarantee against any danger” (Gazeta.ru, March 29).
CAN EUROPE’S SOLE COMMUNIST REGIME BE FORCED TO ABDICATE?