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Russia: Authorities Retreat From Media Freedom

  • Don Hill

Many organizations that monitor the press around the world are condemning the government of President Vladimir Putin for what they consider its suppression of independent media and voices of dissent. In this first of a two-part series, RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill talks to media analysts about Russia's retreat from a free press.

Prague, 10 August 2000 (RFE/RL) -- In recent months, international free-press advocates have accumulated a long list of grievances against the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

High on the list are murders of four prominent journalists in Russia so far this year. There is also the detention and prosecution of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty correspondent Andrei Babitsky, who angered the authorities with his critical reporting of Russia's military campaign in Chechnya.

Then there was the high-profile brief arrest and detention two months ago of Vladimir Gusinsky, head of Russia's Media-MOST group, which includes NTV television and other independent media. When prosecutors late last month dropped the fraud charges against Gusinsky as abruptly as they brought them, the episode seemed to make no sense. But for some international press-freedom monitors, Gusinsky's arrest was part of a systematic attempt to silence independent media.

The situation in Russia so alarmed the Vienna-based International Press Institute, known as the IPI, that it placed the country on its watchlist of countries deemed to be moving away from -- rather than toward -- democratic practices. IPI Director Johann Fritz told our correspondent:

"Because of all of these incidents and increased interference by governmental authorities, the IPI board has put Russia on the watchlist for free-media development. That means governments that are trying to turn the clock back on already-achieved freedom of expression."

Some of the criticism of the Putin government's policy toward the media also comes from within Russia itself. The country's Union of Journalists says that Russia's federal and local governments now control 80 percent of the nation's news outlets. Last month, the union issued what it called a press freedom "Enemies List." The list placed Press Minister Mikhail Lesin as Enemy Number One. Enemy Number Three is the man who appointed him, Vladimir Putin.

Press freedom watchdogs criticize many nations other than Russia and other former communist states. The IPI's World Press Review reports, for example, that Turkey continues to imprison more journalists than any other country. Last year was, in the IPI's phrase, "a bleak year for media freedom" worldwide. Also, the organization says that autocratic leaders who have been squashing broadcasters and newspapers may be encouraged by lack of strong reaction from Western governments.

Article 19 of the United Nations' landmark Universal Declaration of Human Rights says flatly: "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression." In a speech recently to a U.S. audience, however, IPI Director Fritz said that, by one count, only one out of every five people in the world lives under totally free press conditions. Fritz went on to say that, since the UN declaration was issued in 1948, international accords have diluted what he calls Article 19's "clear commitment to press freedom."

The 1950 European Convention on Human Rights -- a fundamental document of the Council of Europe, which now has Russia and 40 other members across the continent-- allowed exceptions to total press freedom for the defense of territorial integrity, confidentiality, and the authority of the judiciary. A 1966 UN civil rights covenant added exceptions for regulations to protect national security, people's reputations and public order and morals. These stipulations, as Fritz puts it, "provided non-democratic and totalitarian regimes with a blueprint for the enactment of press control."

The IPI director says that he is not suggesting that the government signatories to the later caveats deliberately weakened Article 19. Nor, he says, did they seek to enable Russia to suppress its independent media:

"I believe that the Western governments did not intentionally dilute Article 19 in this case, but, as I said, they fell into a trap of political development there [in Russia]."

Robert Coalson, a program director of the Moscow-based National Press Institute, agrees with Fritz that there is a broader political basis for Russia's press clampdown. We'll hear more from both media monitors in the second part of our series.

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