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Russia: Prosecutors Probe Maskhadov's Interviews

After official warnings to two newspapers for publishing interviews with Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov, Russian prosecutors now say they want to question the journalists who carried out the interviews. RFE/RL correspondent Floriana Fossato reports.

London, 8 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Russian prosecutors say they intend to interrogate correspondents from two journals that recently published interviews with Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov.

The prosecutors made their announcement last week (May 4) after Russia's ministry for media affairs issued formal warnings to the daily "Kommersant" and the weekly "Novaya Gazeta" for publishing the Maskhadov interviews.

Yuri Biryukov -- head of the Prosecutor General's Office for the North Caucasus -- said the whereabouts of "Kommersant" reporter Musa Muratov and "Novaya Gazeta's" Viktor Popkovich would be investigated. He said the formal inquiry was being undertaken as a part of an ongoing criminal case against Maskhadov, who is accused of organizing an armed rebellion.

Before the March presidential election, the media ministry [the Ministry for Press, Broadcasting Media and Information] said it would consider any interview with Chechen leaders that appeared in either Russian or foreign media operating on Russian territory as a violation of the law on terrorism. Moscow has consistently blamed the war in Chechnya on what it calls "terrorists" and "bandits."

Deputy media minister Mikhail Seslavinsky later qualified the ban by saying Russian journalists could meet and interview Chechen leaders -- as long as they did not disseminate materials that "justified" or "incited" terrorist activities. But Russian monitoring groups have criticized this and other moves promoted by the media ministry since its creation last year.

Robert Coalson is a program director for the Saint Petersburg-based National Press Institute, a non-governmental organization promoting Russian independent media. He says Russia's media ministry acts arbitrarily and deprives journalists of their right to do their job professionally:

"The system of warnings is the ministry's favorite way of dealing with the press. It was characteristic of what it did during the [presidential] election process as well. Rather then acting through a legal precedent-setting system, it acts by using those warnings. The law on covering these so-called 'terrorists,' on [not] providing air-time to anyone the Russian government decides is a 'terrorist,' is a very vague one and is written in that way on purpose. Actually, it is [an executive] decree, not a law."

According to Coalson, the ministry's decision two months ago to issue the warnings was apparently part of an overall effort to intimidate media outlets whose coverage of the Chechen war did not follow the Kremlin line. He says the recent moves against "Kommersant" and "Novaya Gazeta," and their reporters, seem to have the same purpose:

"The real effect of these warnings, and this basically bureaucratic harassment, is to send a very direct message to all other journalists in Russia that this could happen [to them] at any time. Much weaker organs than 'Novaya Gazeta' and 'Kommersant' are very easily influenced by such things, and this clearly leads to self-censorship of materials that were written."

But other observers say the media ministry's moves against the two journals was surprising because their interviews with Maskhadov contained nothing that other media had not published or aired in previous weeks.

Talking to "Novaya Gazeta," for example, Maskhadov linked oligarch and Kremlin insider Boris Berezovsky - who controls "Kommersant" - to so-called "rogue" Chechen guerrilla commanders. These commanders are said to responsible for the attacks in Dagestan and on apartment bombings in Russia that triggered Russia's military intervention last year.

But Maskhavov has said more or less the same thing in other interviews he has given over the past two weeks. During that time, the Chechen president has talked with Germany's Deutsche Welle radio, the French daily "Le Monde and RFE/RL's Russian Service. The ministry has taken no action against these media.

According to Russian regulations, a second warning to the two journals would allow the ministry to close the publications. That may why be why "Kommersant" says it is filing a legal suit against the ministry. "Novaya Gazeta" has not yet announced its intentions.

The reaction of other Russian media to the ministry has generally been feeble. Few, if any, have expressed any outrage at what analyst Coalson says is a transparent attempt at intimidation. Coalson describes the lack of solidarity among Russian media -- and the entities that control them -- as "perhaps the most disturbing thing" about the ministry's actions.