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Moscow Moving Against Media Freedom

(Washington, DC--February 2, 2001) President Vladimir Putin is imposing ever more severe restrictions on media freedom in Russia, thereby reversing one of the great achievements of the Boris Yeltsin era, the director of a leading media watchdog organization told an RFE/RL briefing this week.

Ann Cooper, who is director of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, said that Putin is not interested in press freedom. Indeed, she noted, "whenever Putin talks about press freedom, it is clear to me that what he really wants to see is press censorship." Unfortunately, she said, one of the reasons he has been able to move against the media is the shift in Russian public attitudes about journalists.

For many Russians, journalists were the heroes of Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost campaign, Cooper said, and they played a key role in turning back the August 1991 coup. But the willingness of journalists to compromise their integrity in support of the reelection of Boris Yeltsin in 1996 soured many Russians on the press, sending its ratings among the population sharply downward. Now, she said, CPJ researchers have found that many Russians share Putin's belief that the state should put restrictions on the media.

Cooper added that her group was especially concerned by three developments: the severe restrictions on coverage of the Chechen war, the increase in unpunished violence against journalists, and the government's moves against two media oligarchs, Vladimir Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky.

The Russian information agency Moscow established to provide information about the Chechen war has proved to be an oxymoron, Cooper said. Instead of providing news, it has done everything it can to prevent journalists from getting accurate information about Chechnya. And she recalled the Russian governments harsh treatment last winter of RFE/RL journalist Andrei Babitsky.

CPJ is convinced that at least three Russian journalists were killed because of their work during 2000 and suspects that more may have been. She noted that Russian officials seldom investigate these cases aggressively or bring those responsible to justice.

And she said that the Kremlin's pressure on Gusinsky and Berezovsky, however legally complicated these cases may in fact be, threatened the most important independent journalistic outlets in Russia today.

In the face of these trends, Cooper called on Western governments and human rights organizations to keep up the pressure on the Russian authorities.