Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 95

The scandal surrounding the May 11 raid on Media-Most’s headquarters by armed government security agents has already turned into an all-out “media war.” The weekend’s news and news analysis programs on Russian State Television (RTR) and Russian Public Television (ORT) featured what can only be described as all-out attacks on Media-Most. Both channels alleged that materials seized from Media-Most’s security service in last week’s raid included tapes and transcripts of private phone conversations of leading officials and businessmen, including Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo, former President Boris Yeltsin’s daughter Tatiana Dyachenko, tycoon and Kremlin insider Boris Berezovsky, United Energy Systems head Anatoly Chubais, founder and head of Alfa Bank Pyotr Aven, former privatization tsar Alfred Kokh, and Yelena Baturina (wife of Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov). Federal Security Service spokesman Aleksandr Zdanovich told RTR that the transcripts were kept in computer databases of Media-Most’s security service, and that there was “a mass of material” connected to illegally monitored messages from Rushailo’s pager. Last night, Nikolai Svanidze, the host of “Zerkalo,” RTR’s weekly news analysis program, said that he had seen transcripts of his son’s private conversations.

Meanwhile, the “Vremya” news program on ORT, which is a majority state-owned channel but widely believed to be under Berezovsky’s control, alleged last night that Media-Most’s security services had links to foreign private security services operating in Russia, including Israeli, and that those, in turn, had connections to the intelligence agencies of their home countries (RTR, May 13-14; ORT, May 14). Today, the newspaper Izvestia attacked Media-Most on its front page for the alleged illegal eavesdropping (Izvestia, May 15). The authorities have also charged that Media-Most’s security service eavesdropped on its own employees. Media-Most has denied all the charges and announced that it plans to sue FSB spokesman Zdanovich.

For its part, NTV, Media-Most’s flagship television channel, fought back. Last night, “Itogi,” the channel’s weekly news analysis program, charged that the search of Media-Most’s headquarters was both illegally handled and politically motivated. The program put forward a long list of high-level criminal cases which the authorities have not successfully prosecuted, including the 1995 murder of television journalist Vladislav Listyev and the 1998 investigation into the illegal theft of a stake in a state chemical factory allegedly carried out by Oneksimbank, the bank founded by one-time powerful “oligarch” Vladimir Potanin. In 1996, Oneksimbank took a controlling stake in the newspaper Izvestia. Yevgeny Kiselev, Itogi’s host, openly took issue with those who have argued that President Vladimir Putin might not have been involved in ordering the raid on Media-Most (NTV, May 14). What was interesting about NTV’s coverage is that it seems to have adopted a go-for-broke strategy, attacking Putin, ORT, RTR and leading oligarchs. Last night’s Itogi broadcast left the impression that Media-Most already decided to go out fighting in a struggle which it knows it cannot win. Media-Most has been highly critical of the Putin administration, Berezovsky and Kremlin administration chief Aleksandr Voloshin, and the Chechen War (see the Monitor, May 12).

On May 12, Putin reacted to the Media-Most raid. The presidential press service released a statement which essentially gave the raid its blessing. “The president is firmly convinced that freedom of speech and freedom of the media are immutable values,” the statement read. “A free press must exist as an important guarantee of democratic development. As for the investigation of criminal cases, all are equal before the law, regardless of the kind of business they may be involved in” (Russian agencies, May 12). Mikhail Lesin, Russia’s press minister, denied that the government was in any way trying to limit free speech or put pressure on the mass media (Radio Ekho Moskvy, May 12).

Also on May 12, Igor Domnikov, a journalist with the biweekly newspaper Novaya gazeta, was beaten unconscious with a hammer near the entrance to his apartment building. According to Russian press reports yesterday, he remained in extremely serious condition. Novaya gazeta’s chief editor, Dmitri Muratov, said over the weekend that the attackers’ intended target may have been a Novaya gazeta investigative journalist who lives in the same building as Domnikov (Russian agencies, May 14). Novaya gazeta has been highly critical of the Russian government and the country’s oligarchs, and specializes in investigating corruption. Earlier this year, an edition of the newspaper was prevented from being published on schedule by computer hackers (see the Monitor, March 16).

In an interview published today, Vladimir Lukin, a deputy speaker of the State Duma, leader of Yabloko and Russia’s former ambassador to Washington, said that the raid on Media-Most and the attack on Novaya gazeta’s Igor Domnikov appeared to be part of a “purposeful strategy.” Lukin said that if the authorities have indeed decided to crack down on the media, the crackdown would be carried out with “carrots and sticks,” through “direct threats” and “direct bribery.” As a result, he said, “undesirable publications will simply disappear or become mouthpieces of the authorities and the oligarchs” (Novaya gazeta, May 15).

The Media-Most raid, meanwhile was strongly criticized by Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and Oleg Mironov, the government’s human rights ombudsman. Mironov called the raid on Media-Most’s headquarters “a crude violation of human rights” (Russian agencies, May 12).