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Russia: Journalists Warn Council Of Europe Of Threats To Press Freedom

At a Parliamentary Assembly committee hearing at the Council of Europe yesterday, Russian journalists and assembly members expressed concern over the state of their country's media. Speaking from Spain, Russian media tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky said threats to press freedom in Russia could endanger democracy in the country. RFE/RL correspondent Jean-Christophe Peuch, who attended the hearing in Strasbourg, says several of the Russian participants flatly asserted that censorship had returned to Russia.

Strasbourg, 23 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Russian journalists and member of the Council Europe's Parliamentary Assembly yesterday strongly criticized what they described as Russian President Vladimir Putin's attempts to quell independent media.

Speakers invited to a hearing of the assembly's Culture and Education Committee -- which deals with media questions -- unanimously expressed concerns about threats to press freedom in Russia.

The Moscow-based Glasnost Foundation has been monitoring violations of journalist rights in Russia since the early 1990s. Its chairman, Aleksei Simonov, told the hearing that Russian journalists are facing growing pressure from both federal and regional authorities:

"The abolition of censorship in 1990 prompted a kind of euphoria among Russian citizens, international experts and international observers. Everyone then thought that the abolition of censorship represented a line beyond which freedom of expression would follow. Unfortunately, we were all wrong."

Simonov also said that "censorship in Russia has not disappeared -- it has simply transformed itself." He then quoted British playwright George Bernard Shaw, who once wrote: "Murder is the extreme form of censorship."

Figures released by the Glasnost Foundation show that 15 Russian journalists were killed last year. More than 70 others were beaten up, physically abused, or otherwise harassed while performing their duties.

Vsevolod Bogdanov is the chairman of Russia's 150,000-strong Journalists' Union. Speaking at the hearing, Bogdanov blamed his country's leadership for having failed to create a genuinely independent media market.

Bogdanov said that today's media market in Russia is worth about $1.25 billion (35 billion rubles). Less than half of that, he said, comes from the sales of newspapers and magazines and from advertisement revenue. More than half comes from individuals, political parties or what Bogdanov called "criminal groups" vying for control over the press.

"The tragedy of it is that people who are investing money in the mass media are doing so with the sole purpose of manipulating public opinion."

Participants in the hearing all condemned the Kremlin's recent attempts to clamp down on Media-MOST, Russia's largest private press group, headed by media magnate Gusinsky. Now facing accusations of fraud in his country, Gusinsky is in Spain awaiting a decision on a Russian extradition request.

Gusinsky spoke to the hearing by telephone from Madrid. He said that the threat to press freedom in Russia could endanger democracy in the country. Gusinsky asked: "Will there be free media? Is democracy [in Russia] to stay or will the country regress?"

Yevgeny Kiselyov is the head of Media-MOST's most important outlet, NTV television. At the hearing, Kiselyov accused Russian authorities of trying to "exert control over people's minds."

"True, in every country authorities are, as a rule, not particularly fond of journalists. But in Russia this has taken on a much larger dimension."

Kiselyov reiterated his belief that NTV had infuriated the Kremlin when it started uncovering corruption scandals implicating individuals close to the presidential entourage. But first and foremost, Kiselyov said, NTV irked the Kremlin by its critical coverage of the war in Chechnya.

Radio Liberty's Chechnya correspondent Andrei Babitsky also spoke at the hearing. Babitsky, who was arrested and jailed last year by the Russian military while covering the war in the breakaway republic, said censorship was restored "as an institution" in October 1999 with the renewal of military operations in Chechnya.

Although Russian Broadcasting and Communications Minister Mikhail Lesin received an invitation to address the hearing, he failed to turn up. No reason was given for his absence.