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Russia: Police Raid Media-MOST Offices

Masked tax police on Thursday barged into two offices of the Media-MOST holding, a group that includes some of Russia's most prominent broadcast and print news organizations, searching for documents. Journalists and management are accusing the Russian government of trying to silence voices of criticism.

Moscow, 12 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- At around 9:00 on Thursday morning, armed men in fatigues and black masks stormed the offices of Media-MOST, the company that owns many of the Russian news organizations most critical of the Kremlin.

Some of the men wore the insignia of the Russian tax police. And FSB spokesman Aleksandr Zdanovich implied that FSB agents also participated in the raid when he told Echo of Moscow yesterday that the Prosecutor-General's office is allowed to use FSB agents in its investigations.

The Russian Prosecutor-General's Office said it was searching for documents as part of an investigation into possible criminal activities by Media-MOST's security service.

But Media-MOST officials say the raid is just the latest Kremlin attempts to clamp down on independent journalism.

Igor Malashenko is the deputy head of Media-MOST's board of directors. In an interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service, he called the raid an attempt to frighten the free press.

"We can do only one thing -- to speak as publicly and openly as possible about what is going on and to attract the attention of the most diverse political forces, both in Russia and abroad, because our country does not live in an isolated world. And the issue of Russia's attitude towards freedom of expression and freedom of the press is not a domestic problem concerning only our country."

Media-MOST, controlled by magnate Vladimir Gusinsky, owns several of Russia's more critical media outlets -- including NTV, Echo of Moscow radio, and the daily newspaper "Segodnya."

NTV, for example, repeatedly questions the official version of the war in Chechnya. Its satirical shows pique the Kremlin with biting humor. The weekly program "Kukly," starring caricatured puppets of Russia politicians, recently parodied President Vladimir Putin's harsh handling of issues like Chechnya and press freedom by portraying him as a surgeon brandishing a bloody chainsaw at his hapless patients.

Malashenko linked the raid to an investigation published by "Segodnya" last month. The newspaper accused the deputy head of the FSB (General Zaostrovtsev) of embezzling funds. Malashenko says the security forces are going after Media-MOST because they fear more compromising revelations, about even higher officials.

"During the search, their task was to find any material on corruption in the higher state authorities, including security authorities, so that they can't be published by NTV, radio Echo of Moscow, or in 'Segodnya' newspaper. In the end, their task is to prevent Media-MOST outlets from working."

Malashenko charged that the initiative comes from the Kremlin.

"There is no doubt in my mind that this action is supported by certain high-placed officials in the Kremlin. The most important question is whether or not the highest state authority gave his sanction, I mean first and foremost President Putin."

Media-MOST, which owes almost 300 million dollars in unpaid debts, has come under financial pressure from other government-controlled entities over the past year, and some media analysts believe the group's news outlets have become somewhat less critical of the government. When one of its creditors, Veneshekonombank, suddenly foreclosed on it last year, the group accused the Kremlin of being behind the demand. Similar accusations flew again last week, when Gazprom, one of Media-MOST's shareholders, leaked information that Media-MOST had offered a "shares for debt" swap to repay more than 200 million dollars in debt guaranteed by the gas monopoly.

A Media-MOST spokesman Dmitry Ostalsky suggested that the Kremlin was trying to use Gazprom to exert political pressure on the media holding.

Russian authorities, however, deny that there is any political motive behind the raid. The Prosecutor-General's Office says it is investigating alleged violations of bank and business secrecy laws by Media-MOST's security service.

One of the main tasks of company security services in Russia is to collect intelligence on the competition. The Prosecutor-General's Office says Media-MOST's service may have used illegal listening devices.