Radio Liberty confirmed yesterday that one of its reporters, Andrei Babitsky, is missing. Earlier this month, Babitsky told the station’s Moscow bureau that he was planning to leave the Chechen capital of Djohar on foot. Neither his wife nor his colleagues have heard from him since January 15. Vladimir Baburin, the station’s Moscow bureau editor, said that the station received unconfirmed reports on January 25 that Babitsky was detained in the Chechen capital–whether by federal forces, Russian Interior Ministry agents or Federal Security Service (FSB) was unclear. Aleksandr Mikhailov, head of the government’s Russian Information Center, categorically denied the possibility that Babitsky could have been held by either the military, Interior Ministry or FSB since mid-January without anyone knowing about it. Sergei Yastrzhembsky, Acting President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman on Chechnya, was quoted yesterday as saying that Babitsky “left Grozny [Djohar] and then disappeared,” and that “as far as we are concerned, his security was not guaranteed.” Babitsky’s colleagues, meanwhile, said it was unlikely that he was detained or kidnapped by Chechen rebels (Moscow Times, Segodnya, January 27; Russian agencies, January 26).
Earlier this year, Babitsky took vivid video footage of the war in the Chechen capital from the side of the rebels, some of which was broadcast on Itogi, NTV television’s weekly news analysis program. The Federal Security Service subsequently seized photographs Babitsky made in Chechnya, saying that they were needed for the investigation into the terrorist bombings which took place in Moscow and other cities last September. Some of Babitsky’s colleagues were quoted today as saying that in the days just prior to his disappearance, he had great trouble transmitting his reports from Chechnya because his phone was constantly getting cut off (Segodnya, January 27).
Yesterday the Russian Union of Journalists called on all military and civilian authorities to help search for Babitsky (Moscow Times, January 27).
The news of Babitsky’s disappearance was followed by an attack on a journalist in Moscow. Dmitri Bykov, a correspondent for the weekly newspaper Sobesednik, was severely beaten by two unknown assailants last night. Sources in the newspaper said they believed that the beating was connected either to his political reporting or his stories covering cults in Russia, and that Bykov had recently received several anonymous threats (Radio Ekho Moskvy, January 27).
Earlier this month, the World Association of Newspapers sent a letter to Acting President Vladimir Putin in which it called Russia–where eleven journalists were killed in 1999–“the most dangerous European country” in which to practice journalism. The association said that while journalists covering the Chechen conflict were in the greatest danger, those covering the presidential elections were only marginally better off. The group called on Putin to ensure the protection of journalists during the campaign (Moscow Times, January 19).
Meanwhile, the newspaper Moskovsky komsomolets today called on its readers to participate in a demonstration set for tomorrow (January 28) near the Moscow headquarters of the Interior Ministry, to protest the attempted detention of its journalist Aleksandr Khinshtein. Interior Ministry officers last week tried to detain Khinshtein and force him to undergo a psychiatric evaluation, in connection with an incident last May, when he was stopped for a traffic violation and found to be in illegal possession–according to the authorities–of police identification. Since last week’s incident, Khinshtein has gone into hiding (see the Monitor, January 24). Yesterday, a Moscow court examined a complaint filed by Khinshtein and his lawyer alleging that the criminal investigation into the May incident was prolonged illegally. Representatives of the Prosecutor General’s Office and the Interior Ministry’s investigation committee did not show up for yesterday’s hearing (Moskovsky komsomolets, January 27).
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