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Russia: Press Faces New Restrictions Following Hostage Crisis

  • Gregory Feifer

Since President Vladimir Putin took office in 2000, the Russian media have seen increasing restrictions, including the takeover by state-connected organizations of some outlets controlled by Kremlin opposition figures. With the press facing stern criticism from the government again -- this time for its coverage of last week's hostage crisis -- parliament today passed more limitations in connection with Russia's stepped-up "war on terrorism." It's a move that freedom-of-speech defenders see as a threat.

Moscow, 1 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The Russian parliament today approved a series of new restrictions on the press, adding changes to the law on media following coverage of last week's hostage crisis, which the government has criticized.

Officials say the media should not be allowed to give out information that would hinder counterterrorist operations, threaten lives, or function as "propaganda" for terrorists.

Top Kremlin spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembskii yesterday condemned some aspects of the media's coverage of last week's crisis in which 50 Chechen rebels took around 800 people hostage for 58 hours in a Moscow theater.

Yastrzhembskii told journalists that reports that negotiators were bargaining for the release of foreigners, instead of any hostages regardless of citizenship, were false. "The media often accuse authorities of cynicism. But this is an example of the unlimited cynicism of the media. When I hear such conjectures, I don't know how to answer because it's just shocking," Yastrzhembskii said.

The government says control over journalists is necessary for protecting the lives and health of citizens.

The amendments to the media law -- given preliminary approval before the hostage crisis -- would bar the media from distributing information that would hinder counterterrorist operations or reveal tactics used in such operations or information about people involved in them.

The measures would also prohibit the publication or broadcasting of "propaganda or justification of extremist activity."

Pavel Kovalenko, a member of the pro-Kremlin parliamentary Unity faction, is on the Duma's Committee for Information Policy and is one of the new bill's authors. He brushed off criticism that the amendments would enact unfair restrictions. "As a matter of fact, the law is not imposing anything. It reflects the current situation in our society, so this law does not suggest any infringement of the freedom of the press," Kovalenko said.

But free-press defenders say officials already have too much control. Oleg Panfilov, head of Moscow's Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, strongly criticized the new legislation at a news conference today. "I'm afraid that the situation is deteriorating rapidly. I'm afraid that very soon it will be harder and harder to conduct press conferences, harder and harder to fight for journalists' rights and for freedom of speech," Panfilov said.

Media coverage of the conflict in Chechnya is already heavily controlled. The government must approve the movements of almost all journalists allowed into the breakaway republic, where the military oversees their activities.

But there was little authorities could do about Russians watching last week's hostage crisis unfold live on television. Events were broadcast minute to minute in extended coverage that included live mobile-telephone calls with hostages and interviews with hostage takers.

Nonetheless, the government has been accused of heavy-handed meddling. On the last day of the hostage standoff, the Press Ministry abruptly ordered Moscow's Channel 3 off the air for 15 hours for allegedly airing possible escape routes for the hostage takers.

The government also threatened to shut down websites and reprimanded a number of newspapers.

Authorities allowed only some of the statements by rebel leader Movsar Baraev inside the theater recorded by independent NTV television to be broadcast.

Some doctors and officials were also prohibited from giving statements about freed hostages following the crisis.

Meanwhile, some state-controlled outlets have said they would do more to police themselves. Konstantin Ernst, director of state-controlled ORT television -- the country's most popular channel -- told "Vremya MN" newspaper this week that his station would enact "very strict self-censorship."

Critics say that instead of protecting citizens, government restrictions and pressure allow authorities to spread official -- and skewed -- versions of the truth. In addition to secrecy over authorities' actions, they say that this has helped the circulation of many different accounts of what actually happened during the hostage crisis.

Human rights defenders have also decried officials' statements that the hostage takers released a number of Muslims and foreigners in the first hours of the standoff, claims former hostages have subsequently contradicted. Critics say such statements help fan xenophobia.

Lyudmilla Alekseeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group human rights organization, praised the overall tone of media coverage. "From time to time, [the media] was saying that terrorism doesn't have a nationality, that crime doesn't have a nationality. I must say that when it came down to the wire, our journalists conducted themselves like normal people," Alekseeva said.

Panfilov said the Russian press is trying to shake off limits placed on it by the government since the beginning of the war in Chechnya in 1999. He said the profession has a small number of independent journalists who are "able to do something" but is still dominated by many more state-connected outlets. "It's a flow of disinformation. It's a flow of lies. It's a flow of contradictions and so on. A normal person sitting in Uryupensk or somewhere in Ryazan Oblast could not understand [what was going on during the hostage crisis]. Remember that most of Russia's population watches [state-controlled] ORT and RTR [television]. These are unfortunate people. They really couldn't understand anything that was going on in Moscow," Panfilov said.

Asked by RFE/RL about the new measures passed by parliament today, Putin's human rights ombudsman, Oleg Mironov, said journalists must show "respect to society" but added that his office would file complaints on the legislation if it steps over constitutionally guaranteed rules protecting freedom of the press.

The amendments must be approved by the Federation Council, the upper house of parliament, before being signed into law by the president.