Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 53

There are signs that Russia may be moving toward a policy some would view as media censorship. During a meeting yesterday of the presidential commission to counteract political extremism, one of the issues discussed was how to fight manifestations of extremism and “collaboration with terrorists” in the Russian mass media. A meeting participant, Deputy Press Minister Mikhail Seslavinsky, said that information appearing in Russian media will be judged by antiterrorism law as well as by press law. Antiterrorism legislation holds, among other things, that information serving as either “propaganda” or “justification” for terrorism can be banned. On this basis, Seslavinsky said, “the federal authorities will regard the granting of air time to Chechen field commanders in the Russian media as an act of collaboration with terrorism.” He specifically named Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, Chechen rebel spokesman Movladi Udugov and field commander Shamil Basaev as persons whom the authorities consider to be “terrorists” and, accordingly, should be banned from the airwaves. On March 13, the North Caucasus division of the Prosecutor General’s Office formally charged Udugov with violating Russia’s law against “armed rebellion” for his alleged leading role in last year’s armed incursion by Chechnya-based separatists into Dagestan (Kommersant, Segodnya, March 15; Radio Liberty, March 14).

It is not clear exactly what this new interpretation of Russia’s antiterrorism law will mean in concrete terms. The newspaper Kommersant implied that the authorities were focused only on the electronic media, while Segodnya and Radio Ekho Moskvy used the phrase “presenting the words”, suggesting that even quoting them in the print media would violate the law. Kommersant, it should be noted, is controlled by Boris Berezovsky and thus tends to be pro-Kremlin, while Segodnya and Ekho Moskvy are part of Vladimir Gusinsky’s Media-Most group, which tends to be critical of the Kremlin (Kommersant, Segodnya, Ekho Moskvy, March 15).

One possible interpretation of the Press Ministry’s demarche involves Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), whose Chechnya correspondent, Andrei Babitsky, was detained by Russian forces in Chechnya in January and then “exchanged” to unknown Chechens. On March 13, the ministry demanded that RFE/RL’s Moscow bureau provide complete recordings of station broadcasts between February 15 and March 15 of this year. Among those were numerous telephone interviews with Maskhadov and Udugov, and interviews which Babitsky made with Basaev and other rebel field commanders.

It is unclear whether the Press Ministry’s demand for tapes of Radio Liberty’s programs is related to its subsequent policy statement on giving air time to terrorists. It is also unclear whether the media could be prosecuted. In any case, RFE/RL President Thomas Dine said in a statement released yesterday that the station would “comply with all legal requests from the Russian government,” but viewed “the timing and form of this request as an act designed to intimidate us and others.” Dine also said that the station would continue to interview Chechen leaders like Maskhadov and Basaev as part of its effort to cover all sides of the Chechen conflict (Radio Liberty, March 14).

The government’s pressure on Radio Liberty shows no sign of letting up. On March 10, Russian media reported that the Prosecutor General’s Office had charged Babitsky with aiding “illegal armed formations” (meaning the Chechen rebels), a charge which can carry a penalty of up to five years in prison (Russian agencies, March 10). In the recently released book “In the First Person: Conversations with Vladimir Putin,” a series of interviews with the acting president, Putin charged that Babitsky “was not a neutral source” of information, and had been “working directly for the enemy” or, as he put it elsewhere, “for the bandits” (Moscow Times, March 15).