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World: Pressure On Russia Seen Helping Safeguard Free Press

The Committee to Protect Journalists issued its annual report Wednesday on press freedoms around the globe. The report says 34 journalists were killed in the line of duty last year. The group was particularly critical of Russia and Yugoslavia in their handling of the independent media. The organization's executive director said, however, international pressure can be effective in trying to protect a free press. RFE/RL Senior Correspondent Frank T. Csongos reports from Washington.

Washington, 23 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- A U.S. group monitoring press freedoms worldwide says international pressure on Moscow helped win the release of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty correspondent Andrei Babitsky -- the reporter detained in Chechnya in January.

Ann Cooper, the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), said Wednesday her organization believes the decision to free Babitsky was in response to international pressure. She accused the Russian government of lying and covering up its actions against Babitsky, who was detained while covering the Russian conflict against Chechen separatists.

Cooper spoke at a press conference marking the release of CPJ's annual report called Attacks on the Press. The CPJ is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the defense of press freedom everywhere.

"One example of how international pressure can make a difference I think we saw very recently in Russia's decision to release Andrei Babitsky, the Radio Liberty reporter who was captured in January in Chechnya. After weeks of lying and covering up, the Russian government finally brought Babitsky back to Moscow, very clearly we believe in response to the huge international outcry, calling for his freedom."

Cooper said Babitsky was arrested simply because Russian authorities did not like his independent reporting from the war zone. Babitsky was finally released, she said, because acting President Vladimir Putin -- who is running for election this Sunday -- decided the easiest way to get out of the situation was to bring Babitsky back to Moscow.

Cooper said the Babitsky case is not over yet. She said Babitsky still could face charges of having a forged passport and allegedly collaborating with Chechen separatists.

Babitsky, a Russian national, has denied allegations of wrongdoing.

The New York-based group said the case of Babitsky was an example of the dangers many journalists still face in the former Soviet Union.

At the State Department, spokesman James Rubin also raised similar concerns about the Russian government's treatment of the news media. He noted that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had taken up the Babitsky issue with top Russian officials.

"The secretary obviously was profoundly disturbed by the actions taken against Mr. Babitsky and the general issue of press freedom in Russia. There have been some blows to press freedom in Russia in recent weeks and months, and those are matters of concern to us."

In its report, CPJ said there are "no neutral parties in Russia's media war." It said that the Kremlin prosecuted whistle-blowing independent journalists such as Grigory Pasko, who exposed the Russian Navy's illegal nuclear-waste dumping. And, the report said, Moscow has threatened to cancel the credentials of Western media that covered alleged links between the Russian government and Russian mobsters who laundered money through the Bank of New York.

Turning to the Balkans, the report said Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic first used the threat of war, than an actual war, and finally international hostility toward his regime to justify the use of government censorship.

The report said the press crackdown was particularly brutal in Kosovo, where a 1998 military offensive by the Kosovo Liberation Army triggered Serbian government repression of ethnic Albanians.

It said that after NATO began its bombing campaign last March, Belgrade responded with an ethnic-cleansing campaign in Kosovo that swept up the independent press. The war ended last June with the withdrawal of Serb forces from Kosovo and the stationing of NATO-led peacekeepers there.

The group said Milosevic continues to stifle press freedoms in Serbia.

"In Yugoslavia, for example, Slobodan Milosevic does not bother putting his journalists in jail. He doesn't have to: he has a very Draconian information law with very heavy fines that essentially work to put people out of business."

She added:

"Eighteen months later Milosevic continues to use this same technique and he is slowly strangling the remaining independent print and broadcast media in Yugoslavia."

The report was also critical of Iran, China, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Belarus and other countries of the former Soviet Union and of central and eastern Europe.

The report said that 34 journalists were killed last year worldwide in the line of duty, up from 24 the year before. It said that 87 journalists were held behind bars for their work -- a decrease from the 118 imprisoned a year earlier.