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Russia: U.S. Voices Concern Over Media Freedom

  • Frank Csongos

The U.S. State Department says the Russian government has been using political pressure and intimidation against independent media. Spokesman Richard Boucher made the statement following the recent takeover of Russia's only nationwide independent television network and the closure of two leading print publications. Our correspondent Frank T. Csongos reports from Washington.

Washington, 19 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The United States has expressed concern about media freedom in Russia following the takeover of an independent television network and the closure of two prominent print publications.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters on 18 April the U.S. is deeply disappointed with recent actions involving Media-MOST -- part-owner of the embattled independent NTV network -- the respected daily newspaper "Segodnya" and the weekly magazine "Itogi."

Commenting about Russia's only independent nationwide television station -- NTV -- that was taken over by new management over the protests of staffers, Boucher said:

"We're concerned about the situation there (Russia). We've seen actions that have led many reasonable observers to conclude that the campaign against Media-MOST is politically motivated."

The state-controlled Gazprom conglomerate took control of NTV this month in a move condemned by many staff members and critics as a campaign against independent media. Boucher said this and other actions are troubling.

"We think that the Russian people have made very important gains in the last few years with regard to freedom of expression and the freedom of information in Russia, and we think that these gains are put in jeopardy by the actions that the Russian government has taken, including the use of political pressure and intimidation tactics."

Boucher said the U.S. is "extremely troubled" that the Russian people now have a reduced ability to receive a wide range of news and views.

In a written statement following his remarks to reporters at the department's daily briefing, Boucher noted that the Russian government also filed tax evasion charges against the chief accountant at another television channel, TNT.

Boucher said the U.S. believes that freedom of speech and pluralism in the media are essential elements of a democratic system. He said they are among the most important gains the Russian people have achieved during the past ten years.

Meanwhile in New York, "Newsweek" magazine announced "with great sadness" that it is setting in motion the legal process of terminating its relationship with "Itogi." The Moscow-based independent magazine was closed recently and its new owners say it will reopen under new management.

"Newsweek," which is owned by the Washington Post Company, said in a written statement that while "Itogi's" ownership remains under legal challenge, events in Moscow clearly indicate that control has passed to a new group.

"Newsweek" said it will no longer send editorial material to "Itogi" or sell advertising for the magazine.

In a related development, Spanish judges on 18 April refused to extradite to Russia businessman Vladimir Gusinsky, whose NTV television station has been critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin's policies.

Experts said it was unlikely that the Spanish court's decision will slow down efforts in Russia to bring independent news outlets under government control. "This decision is right and unbiased, but will not actually influence press freedom in Russia," said Ruslan Gorevoy of the Moscow-based Glasnost Foundation.

The court ruling had been expected after Gusinsky's release from custody on 26 March. The Russian authorities wanted him extradited to face fraud charges.

Russian prosecutors had contended that Gusinsky deliberately underestimated the value of his Media-MOST holding company in 1996 in order to win a large loan guaranteed by Gazprom, the government-controlled giant natural gas company. But the judges ruled that Gusinsky's conduct did not violate Spanish laws.

The court declined to rule on Gusinsky's claims that he was the victim of a political prosecution. Nevertheless, the judges felt they were "not completely disproved."

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