First, masked agents of the Moscow prosecutor raided the Moscow offices of Media-Most. Now the owner of the publishing and broadcasting empire has been arrested. RFE/RL Senior Correspondent Andrew F. Tully reports that the U.S. is becoming increasingly worried about human rights under Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Washington, 15 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- American government and political leaders are expressing growing concern about the arrest of Vladimir Gusinsky, the owner of Russia's Media-Most publishing and broadcasting empire.
The White House demanded that Russian law enforcement officials treat Gusinsky fairly, and the State Department said the affair could harm Moscow's reputation. Members of Congress were less diplomatic in expressing their displeasure, saying the arrest is simply unacceptable.
Gusinsky was arrested Tuesday night and put in Moscow's notorious Butyrka jail. He is being held on suspicion of taking part in the theft of $10 million in state funds in a privatization deal. Prosecutors must file charges against him within 10 days of his arrest or he must be released from custody.
Joe Lockhart, the press secretary for U.S. President Bill Clinton, urged prosecutors to ensure due legal process for Gusinsky.
"I think for our purposes, we'll continue to make the case that a free and open press is an essential part of a democracy, and that in this particular case, this gentleman should not be prosecuted for any reason relating to his position in the media, and that any charges and trial should be done in a way that provides him with due process and is open and transparent."
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher was somewhat more critical, saying Russia's reputation could be hurt if the Putin government does not stop suppressing its news media.
"We agree that Russia's international standing will be severely damaged if the government lets stand actions that are intended to intimidate independent media and voices with whom it does not agree."
Several members of the U.S. House of Representatives, the lower house of Congress, were much more emphatic in condemning Gusinsky's arrest.
At a news conference on Capitol Hill, Congressman Christopher Smith stressed that all members of Congress -- regardless of political affiliation or personal ideology -- are united against what he called the "tightening of the noose" on the throat of a free press in Russia. Smith is chairman of U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, which monitors the Helsinki accords on human rights.
"We are absolutely united -- Democrats, Republicans, liberals, conservatives, and moderates alike -- in drawing strong attention to the arrest of Vladimir Gusinsky. It's an alarming but not totally surprising development."
Both Smith and Congressman Tom Lantos (D-California) expressed doubt about Putin's statement that he knew nothing of Gusinsky's detention in advance. Lantos said he believes the Russian president is incapable of abiding criticism.
"Mr. Putin -- if he wants to be president of a democratic society -- needs to understand that leaders in democratic societies are subject to criticism. President Clinton has been subject to criticism. [Former U.S.] President [Ronald] Reagan has been subject to criticism. And it's time for Mr. Putin to grow up and understand that if he wants to run a free society, he will be subject to criticism."
Congressman Benjamin Gilman (R-New York), also present at the news briefing, complained that a decade of American financial and other assistance to Moscow apparently has made little difference in terms of press freedom in Russia.
"After all these years of American assistance to Russia, millions of dollars of which have gone to support key democratic reforms such as privatization of the media in Russia, almost all of Russia's printing and publishing houses, regional and rural newspapers, and major television frequencies still remain in the control of the Russian government."
Gilman said the administration of U.S. President Bill Clinton bears part of the blame. The congressman said it is not speaking out as forcefully as it should against what he called the abuses of the Putin government.
"In early February of this year, I wrote to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to express our very strong concern over the Russian government's manipulation of the media in that country, and asking her to tell us what the United States government's views were with regard to such manipulation. We're still awaiting a response from our secretary of state."
Members of Congress can do little immediately to punish what some consider to be a repressive government. But on Thursday, Lantos, Gilman, Smith and other members say they plan to introduce a congressional resolution deploring the Moscow government's treatment of its news media. The measure was prompted by the raid on Media-Most by masked agents of the Moscow prosecutor's office on May 11.
The resolution, if passed, would be non-binding, but it is intended to send an unequivocal message to Putin -- that he must do more to earn the trust of America's political leaders.