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Russia: Babitsky Case Highlights Growing Pressure On Journalists

Journalists sometimes become victims. The bizarre circumstances around the disappearance of RFE/RL correspondent Andrei Babitsky has made his case known worldwide. But correspondent Don Hill says press freedoms are threatened in many countries and Babitsky's case is not unique.

Prague, 16 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Many around the world now know the few certain facts about the disappearance of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty correspondent Andrei Babitsky.

Babitsky, a Russian citizen, already was widely respected among his colleagues for his uncompromising coverage of the war in Chechnya. On January 15, two days after filing his last report on heavy Russian bombing of Grozny, he phoned his wife, Lyudmila, in Moscow. She has not seen him or heard from him since.

Three days later, Russian troops in Chechnya detained Babitsky. They accused him of entering a combat zone without proper credentials and sent him to a detention center in Chechnya. At least, that's what Russian authorities finally reported on January 28. Then on February 2, authorities said Babitsky had been released and was on his way to Moscow.

At this point in the story, Russian officials suddenly reverse themselves and say they traded Babitsky to a Chechen rebel commander in return for "two" -- the first report said "three" -- Russian prisoners of war. They say Babitsky agreed to the deal.

A storm of protest has broken over the Kremlin. The United States, other nations, international organizations, Russian news organizations, and journalist groups are protesting against the Russian actions and against the contradictory and vague statements that followed.

RFE/RL President Thomas Dine says he is deeply worried for the newsman's safety. Dine:

"We will do everything we can to find Mr. Babitsky. We will do everything we can to -- hopefully -- save his life, but I fear for the worst."

Babitsky's case is attracting worldwide attention, but the heads of RFE/RL's 21 language services say he does not stand alone among journalists as victims.

A New York-based independent watchdog group, Committee to Protect Journalists, agrees. CPJ says assailants killed at least 33 journalists last year because of their work. That was up by a third from 1998.

RFE/RL's Thomas Dine says "It is clear from the confusing and contradictory statements by Russian authorities that they are trying to drag the Babitsky case out. And perhaps as far as the election on March 26, we may not have an answer on his whereabouts and his condition. But the same thing is happening in Kazakhstan, in Belarus, in some other areas of dictatorships. For example, Turkmenistan is now holding one of our correspondents, and we're trying to appeal to these governments to stop it, to stop acting like autocrats of the 14th century."

RFE/RL Turkmen Service Director Mohammad Nazar says the Turkmen KNB -- the former KGB -- recently summoned his service's Ashgabat correspondent, Saparmurat Owezberdiev, for questioning. Since then, Owezberdiev's home has been guarded. He is followed whenever he leaves. And the KNB has forbidden him to use his fax and e-mail.

Turkmenistan's actions effectively prevent the Ashgabat journalist from doing his work. A more sinister threat targets RFE/RL journalists in Serbia.

That country's information minister said two weeks ago that Radio Free Europe and other foreign news organizations were preparing Serbian citizens for NATO aggression. He said "They present hysterical anti-Serb propaganda."

CPJ reports that of the journalists slain worldwide last year, one was Belgrade publisher Slavko Curuvija. CPJ says two gunmen fired several bullets into his back in what appeared to be a professional assassination. CPJ also says this: "Shortly before his murder, state television broadcast accusations against Curuvija, alleging that he supported NATO's attack on Yugoslavia."

But CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper says repression of free journalism also can take subtler, less dramatic forms, such as using tax or commercial laws to exert economic pressure on media outlets. She says this type of coercion is increasing:

"The repressions are of a different kind. They may be using laws like criminal libel statutes against media outlets or individual journalists. Or they are using more subtle tactics. For example, in Ukraine, where President [Leonid] Kuchma has used the tax laws and other bureaucratic means to try to [control] media that write things that he doesn't like."

RFE/RL's broadcast service directors know whereof Cooper speaks. Charles Carlson, director of the Kazakh broadcast service, says journalists may not be dying there presently, but free journalism is.

As Carlson puts it: "One method the government uses to control the independent press, newspapers, radios and TV channels is to organize tenders on broadcast frequencies, or to reprivatize [that is, redistribute ownership) of newspapers under groups close to the president." He says one such group last year forced the publisher of a popular, independent newspaper, "Karavan," to sell out or lose his investment completely.

Alexander Lukashuk, director of RFE/RL's Belarus Service, says Belarus officialdom employs lawsuits, tax inspections, interference with distributors, and outright banning to keep news organizations under the government's thumb.