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Russia: Officials Ban Interviews With Chechen Leaders

Russia's Information Ministry has barred the broadcasting or printing of interviews with Chechen rebel leaders, saying that presenting the views of those leaders would violate the anti-terrorism law. RFE/RL correspondent Floriana Fossato reports on the latest attempt by Russian authorities to restrain the media.

London, 16 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Balanced reporting on the war in Chechnya, always hard to come by, may have now been effectively outlawed.

The Russian Information Ministry announced on Tuesday that news media are barred from giving space to interviews with Chechen rebel leaders, including Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov. Field commander Shamil Basayev and former Chechen information minister Mavladi Udugov are also on the list. Ministry officials said publishing such interviews would be considered a violation of the anti-terrorism law.

Mikhail Fedotov is a former Russian ambassador and one of the authors of the law on mass media. He says Russian authorities have chosen their words carefully.

"I perfectly understand what the Information Ministry wants to do. There is a reason why they are saying the law that is broken is not the mass media law but the law against terrorism. Why? Because when they refer to the law against terrorism, it becomes possible for them to then refer to the law concerning licenses for different kinds of activities, and then reprimand any television channels or radio stations. It's a simple move, not very sophisticated."

Russia's anti-terrorism law (article 15) forbids the dissemination of information that could reveal the tactics of anti-terrorism operations. The law also bans information that could impede anti-terrorism action, threaten people's lives, or incite or justify violence.

First Deputy Information Minister Mikhail Seslavinsky says his ministry is carefully monitoring the publishing and broadcasting activities of some 50 media organizations operating at national and regional level.

Not only Russian domestic press, but also foreign media organizations licensed to operate in Russia are under scrutiny. Two days ago, the Information Ministry demanded that international broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Russian radio station Ekho Moskvy provide complete recordings of its broadcasts in Russian between February 15 and March 15.

RFE/RL President Thomas Dine said in a statement that RFE/RL will comply with all legal requests from the Russian government. Dine added, however, that the timing and form of the request appear to be, in his words, "an act designed to intimidate us and others."

Seslavinsky said the ministry is conducting a tense dialogue with a number of media organizations on the possibility of broadcasting publishing the point of view of Chechen leaders and their supporters. He said that, in most cases, the ministry is finding the media to be understanding. But most Russian and international media outlets contacted by RFE/RL refused to speak on the record about how they are affected by the new policy.

Seslavinsky told Ekho Moskvy yesterday (Wednesday) that he is n-o-t necessarily ruling out that Chechen leaders may appear in television broadcasts, or that their words may be paraphrased. In his words: "Quoting somebody does not violate media legislation." But he said that would n-o-t include statements that could incite violence.

Russian officials, including Seslavinsky, have said that Western countries have had similar restrictions on media coverage during conflicts. Britain in the 1980s, under then-prime minister Margaret Thatcher, banned the broadcasting of voices of members of the Irish Republican Army, or IRA.

But BBC World Service political correspondent John Devitt told our correspondent that the ban was considered ineffective, since it did not apply to print media and IRA member statements were printed freely in newspapers. And that ban involved only voices; electronic media were allowed to paraphrase what IRA members had said.

Most important, the British ban was n-o-t used as a pretext to close down radio stations or other media outlets.

The British ban was heavily criticized at home and was lifted in 1994 by Thatcher's successor, John Major.

It is so far unclear whether the new Russian ban would involve only electronic media, or also print news organizations, and whether it would be restricted to voices only.

For the time being, Fedotov says, the Information Ministry announcement may be just a warning. "The decisions of this commission [are not binding and] have a merely consultative character. They have no legal value. The commission is a presidential consultative organ. It can advise on something, recommend measures. As a matter of fact, however, [what the commission states] reflects only the point of views of its members. This is a question of professional ethics in the first place, and I must say that many media companies have addressed this question."

But most journalists say the ministry's statement is part of a worrisome trend that could lead to curtailed freedom of speech in Russia.

This week's warning is the latest in a series of such official statements. Sergei Ivanov, the secretary of Russia's Security Council, said at the beginning of February that Russian journalists should show "patriotism" and, in his words, "take part in the information war against the Chechen terrorists." Ivanov warned that measures would be taken against mass media that broadcast voices and images of Chechen militants.

A few days earlier, the Kremlin spokesman on Chechnya, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, told a daily ("Kommersant") that when the nation mobilizes its forces to achieve some task, that imposes obligations on everyone, including the media.

And last week acting President Vladimir Putin accused RFE/RL reporter Andrei Babitsky of working for the enemy in Chechnya. Putin said Babitsky's reporting was, in the president's words, "more dangerous than if he had been wielding a machine gun."

Babitsky, whose reports from Grozny angered Russian officials, was released from detention after disappearing for more than a month in Chechnya. Charged with using false documents, he is not allowed to leave Moscow.