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Russia: Journalist Detentions Raise Suspicions Of Media Control

As the Beslan school siege unfolded last week, journalists from Russia and around the world sped to the scene. Many reporters -- from organizations ranging from CNN to the main wire agencies and newspapers -- made it to North Ossetia without incident and were able to report relatively freely on the siege. But a handful of reporters -- including two of Russia's best-known journalists on Chechnya -- were prevented from traveling, under highly unusual circumstances. And they were not the only ones -- two Georgian journalists have been arrested by police in Beslan, and on 6 September a reporter from the Al-Arabiya satellite television network was detained on his way back to Moscow from Beslan. It's too early to conclude a conspiracy is at work, but media groups see disturbing patterns.

Prague, 8 September 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Russian newspaper reporter Anna Politkovskaya realized there was something wrong just minutes after drinking a cup of tea served on her flight from Moscow's Vnukovo airport to the southern city of Rostov-on-Don.

The well-known correspondent for "Novaya gazeta" was on her way to the North Caucasus to report on the unfolding hostage crisis in Beslan. She was anxious to get to the school, where she had offered to serve as a mediator between Russian forces and the hostage takers -- a role she'd had two years earlier at the "Nord-Ost" theater siege in Moscow.

Soria Blattman, of the media watchdog group Reporters Without Borders, recounts the story: "[Politkovskaya] tried from Moscow to go to Beslan, and she tried to take several flights. [The first flight] she couldn't [get on], the second [flight] she couldn't, and finally on the third flight she could get on the plane because someone recognized her at the entrance. She didn't want to eat anything, because she knows very well that there is always a risk [of being poisoned] from eating. She is used to having problems of this kind. She drank a cup of tea and after 10 minutes she felt really bad and lost consciousness. And then when she arrived in Rostov, she was taken to the hospital and there doctors told her that she had been intoxicated. It was very serious at the time and they said her health was in a critical situation."

It is the kind of story you expect in James Bond movies. Politkovskaya later recovered, and the whole incident might have been explained simply as a matter of bad airline tea were it not for a similarly strange tale of another well-known reporter, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty correspondent Andrei Babitsky.

Like Politkovskaya, Babitsky last week was hoping to travel to Beslan, but his plans were interrupted as he was passing through Vnukovo. Airport authorities detained Babitsky initially on suspicion of trying to carry explosives onboard the plane -- forcing him to miss the flight. When no explosives were found, Babitsky was released but then held again shortly afterward, when two men apparently tried to provoke him into a fight. The whole case was later dismissed in court, but the damage had been done. Babitsky never made it to Beslan.
Politkovskaya later recovered, and the whole incident might have been explained simply as a matter of bad airline tea were it not for a similarly strange tale of another well-known reporter, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty correspondent Andrei Babitsky.

Babitsky -- who has previously run afoul of the Russian government for his often critical coverage of the Chechen war -- said that he suspects he and Politkovskaya were singled out. He is resting in Moscow now, but spoke to RFE/RL today by telephone.

"Why this was done -- it is difficult to judge," Babitsky said. "This is just a speculation -- I don't know if it reflects the real reasons. I think that Politkovskaya and I were not allowed to the zone of the conflict because the authorities didn't want us to be there."

He continued: "It's also very probable that if the terrorists had known Politkovskaya and I were on the scene, they might have wanted to get in touch with us. The authorities didn't want to allow this to happen, and they wanted to exclude any possibilities of negotiations."

In addition to Babitsky and Politkovskaya, two Georgian television journalists were arrested in Beslan on 4 September in the aftermath of the siege. Russian officials say the two entered the country improperly, but the Georgian Foreign Ministry has called the arrests "outrageous." Russia and Georgia are on opposite sides of a simmering conflict in nearby South Ossetia.

Earlier this week, officials detained the Moscow bureau chief of the satellite television channel Al-Arabiya as he traveled back to Moscow from Beslan.

Russian authorities have not commented on the cases, but Blattman said the detentions -- in sum -- raise suspicions the Kremlin might be trying to exert control over the media. Her group has already called for an investigation into Politkovskaya's alleged tea poisoning and is watching the other cases very carefully.

"Babitsky and Politkovskaya are like two stars of the journalism -- of free and independent and very brave journalism in Russia," Blattman said. "So when those two there are not able to go there, hmmmmm..."

Blattman said her group is not accusing anyone yet, but simply awaiting the results of the investigation.
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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.