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Russia: Council Of Europe To Debate Press Freedom, Chechnya

Strasbourg, 22 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The Council of Europe's parliamentary assembly is due to debate freedom of expression in Russia later today at the start of its winter session in Strasbourg. Russian Broadcasting and Mass Communications Minister Mikhail Lesin, RFE/RL correspondent Andrei Babitsky, and NTV Director-General Yevgeni Kiselev will probably take part in today's discussion. The debate is being held by the Assembly's Culture and Education Committee, headed by Hungary's Gyula Hegyi, who is preparing a report on freedom of expression in Europe.

NTV is owned by Media-MOST, which is owned by Kremlin critic Vladimir Gusinsky. Gusinsky is currently under arrest in Spain. Russia wants him extradited to face charges of embezzling more than $300 million from Gazprom, Media-MOST's largest shareholder and creditor.

The question of media freedom in other countries -- particularly Ukraine and the Czech Republic -- may also be raised by the council. Ukraine has been rocked by the disappearance of journalist Heorhy Gongadze, in a case linked with President Leonid Kuchma. Meanwhile, reporters at Czech Television are striking to protest what they feel is the excessive influence politicians have over the public airwaves.

The Council of Europe's parliamentary assembly will also consider today whether to reinstate Russia's voting rights, nine months after they were suspended over alleged human rights committed by Russian forces in Chechnya.

AFP says a decision is expected on Thursday when the assembly is due to hear a report from senior Council monitors Lord Frank Judd and Rudolf Bindig. The two were part of a fact-finding mission last week to Chechnya. During its three-day stay in the Caucasus, the delegation visited the destroyed Chechen capital Grozny, a detention center, and a refugee camp. While there, Judd expressed concern over numerous reports of harassment, disappearances, and mass killings in Chechnya.

The council is meeting in its annual winter session, which will run until January 26.