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WPFC condemns deterioration of press freedom in Russia

The following is a 15 December 2000 WPFC letter to President Vladimir Putin:

Vladimir Putin
The Federation of Russia
The Kremlin

Your Excellency:

In keeping with our pledge to maintain a close watch on official developments affecting freedom of the press in the Federation of Russia, we are writing you to express our deep distress over governmental harassment of journalistic personalities in three different, high-profile cases -- those of Andrei Babitsky, Vladimir Gusinsky, and Grigor Pasko.

While the cases are distinct from each other, there is a common thread in that each one involves a decision by official prosecutors to continue the legal harassment of someone who is prominent in the world of journalism.

In each case, at some point, a court has already found the accused not guilty of official charges, or they have been amnestied. Yet prosecutors and courts insist on retrying them on the same or closely related charges.

In each case, the accused was involved in journalistic activities critical of or embarrassing to your government.

As you know:

1. Andrei Babitsky was reporting from the Chechen side of a civil conflict on the conduct of Russian Federal military forces in Chechnya. The Dagestan prosecutor's office has obtained a conviction of Mr. Babitsky for alleged use of a false Azeri passport given to him by captors linked to your services for the purpose of his "exfiltration" from Russian Federal territory.

2. Vladimir Gusinsky has headed the Media-MOST group of broadcasting and printed press, the leading independent press group in the Russian Federation. The group's outlets have often reported news in contradiction with the "line" pronounced by official spokesmen. Mr. Gusinsky was found to be innocent of fraud charges in connection with his purchase of a Saint Petersburg broadcast station. The Russian General Prosecutor's office has had him arrested in Spain for extradition to Russia on other fraud charges, involving a loan from a privatized company, even though Media-MOST had reached agreement with that company on the means of repaying that loan.

3. Grigor Pasko was found not guilty of espionage charges for publishing publicly available materials on the Russian Navy's dumping of radioactive waste materials in the Sea of Japan. But a military court has ordered him to return to Vladivostok for a new court martial on the same charges.

Each case involves a decision to pursue a case after the defendant has satisfied his judges of his innocence. This pattern makes it hard to escape the conclusion that your government has embarked on a policy of systematic legal harassment of well-known journalistic figures.

The effect of such a policy can only be to create a threatening general climate for the exercise of press freedom in the Federation of Russia. If prominent journalistic personalities can be subjected to such determined, repeated legal harassment, what could be the reaction of other journalists who do not have the protection of general name recognition?

We are forced to conclude that the situation of the free and independent press in Russia has continued to deteriorate since the visit to Moscow that we coordinated in July of the Russian Press Freedom Support Group, made up of six global free press organizations - the Committee to Protect Journalists, the International Federation of Journalists, the International Federation of the Periodical Press, the International Press Institute, the World Association of Newspapers, and the World Press Freedom Committee.

In September, ten weeks after that visit, we felt constrained to express our continued concerns, given ten new instances that we enumerated of official abuses against press freedom.

Now, once again, we must sadly conclude that - despite Your Excellency's encouraging statements about your government's and your personal attachment to press freedom - the situation in Russia is as bad or worse than ever for a free press. This can only be damaging to the image and standing of Russia, with inevitable long-term consequences for the acceptance of Russia in the community of free and democratic countries, as well as being harmful to the efforts to reform Russian society and the State which should serve it.

We therefore urge you in the national interest of Russia, in the interest of democracy in Russia and abroad, and in the interest of Russian and world press freedom, to give the appropriate instructions to the officials under your authority to respect and act to guarantee the freedom of expression of journalists and others in the Federation of Russia.

Most respectfully,

James H. Ottaway Jr., Chairman
World Press Freedom Committee

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Vladimir Putin
The Kremlin
Moscow, Russia
Fax: +70 95 206 9111 / 206 4168

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