Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 21

Reports that Russian forces had arrested Radio Liberty correspondent Andrei Babitsky in Chechnya were confirmed over the weekend. A spokesman for the Russian Interior Ministry reported on January 28 that Babitsky had been detained on January 23 at a checkpoint while trying to leave the Chechen capital of Djohar. The spokesman, Oleg Aksyonov, said that Babitsky was being held both because he lacked the official accreditation needed to report from Chechnya and because he had allegedly spent time with “illegal armed groups”–meaning the Chechen rebels. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), citing Russian agencies, reported on January 28 that Babitsky had been charged with “participating in an illegal armed formation” (RFE/RL, Russian agencies, January 28). According to reports today, Babitsky is being held in a remand prison near the Chechen town of Urus-Martan, which not long ago fell to federal forces. Babitsky’s colleagues in Radio Liberty’s Moscow bureau are convinced that he was arrested as a result of his journalistic work, which included reportage from territory controlled by the Chechen rebels that differed radically from the official Kremlin view of the war. Prior to his arrest, the authorities attempted to pressure Babitsky: Not long before he was detained in Chechnya, the Federal Security Service searched his apartment in Moscow and confiscated photographs that he had taken while in Chechnya.

Over the weekend, Acting President Vladimir Putin sent Yuri Biryukov, head of the Prosecutor General’s Office for the North Caucasus region, to Djohar while U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin said that official Washington would render RFE/RL the assistance necessary to secure Babitsky’s release. Yesterday, Jeff Trimble, RFE/RL’s director of broadcasting, arrived in Moscow. He will meet today with Sergei Yastrzhembsky, whom Putin recently named as his aide in charge of Chechnya information policy (Radio Liberty, January 30).

Babitsky’s detention is not the first case of government pressure on journalists working in Chechnya. In June 1995, NTV correspondent Yelena Matsyuk was called in for questioning regarding an interview she conducted with Chechen field commander Shamil Basaev. Many journalists working in Chechnya during the 1994-1996 military campaign were beaten up by Russian soldiers, and their video and photo materials were frequently seized (see The Glasnost Protection Fund’s “The information war in Chechnya,” published by Human Rights publishers, 1997). The Babitsky case, however, is the first instance in which a journalist critical of the Kremlin’s policy in Chechnya was arrested.

Itar-Tass, the official Russian state news agency, strongly attacked RFE/RL. It quoted Vladimir Matusevich, who worked for the station for more than 20 years and once headed its Russian service, as saying that Babitsky had visited him in Munich last year and inquired about the possibility of getting political asylum in Germany. Matusevich reportedly suggested that Babitsky had been ordered by Trimble and other RFE/RL officials “to deliberately whip up hysteria” about threats to press freedom in Russia: “I’m deeply convinced that in the final analysis nobody needs the work of Radio Liberty today, maybe except for the CIA,” Matusevich was quoted as saying (Itar-Tass, January 29). It is difficult to see the Itar-Tass report as anything other than an officially sanctioned attack on RFE/RL.