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JOURNALISTS PREVENTED FROM COVERING BESLAN TRAGEDY

In the aftermath of the Beslan hostage crisis in Ossetia, Russia, IFEX members are raising concerns over several incidents in which journalists were prevented from reporting the tragedy. One included a well-known reporter who was poisoned under suspicious circumstances.

The International Press Institute (IPI) has reported four separate incidents in the past week in which journalists attempting to reach Beslan or report from there have been detained by authorities. On 4 September 2004, two journalists from Rustavi 2, a Georgian broadcaster, were detained and charged with illegally crossing the Russian border without a visa. Local police confiscated their camera, video cassettes, documents and mobile phones.

IPI says Nan Lezhava and Levan Tetvadze were entitled to enter without a visa since they are residents of Kazbegi, a region in Georgia which borders Russia. Residents of Kazbegi do not require a visa to enter North Ossetia.

On 7 September, Amro Abdel Hamid, the Moscow bureau chief for Arab satellite channel Al-Arabiya, was detained at the airport in the city of Mineralniye Vody, says IPI. He was returning to Moscow from Beslan, where he was reporting on the hostage crisis. He is an Egyptian who holds a Russian passport. His employers have not been told why Hamid is being detained.

In other incidents, two journalists known for their reporting on the neighbouring war-torn region of Chechnya were prevented from entering Besna, report the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières, RSF).

On 3 September, Andrei Babitsky, a correspondent for the Russian service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, was charged with "hooliganism" after two young men tried to start a fight with him at Vnukovo Airport in Moscow, reports CPJ. Babitsky was on his way to Beslan to cover the hostage incident. The two men were told to pick a fight with Babitsky, according to the Moscow-based website Grani.Ru. Babitsky was sentenced to five days in prison.

Anna Politkovskaya, a well-known reporter for the Russian newspaper "Novaya Gazeta" who was also attempting to get to Beslan, was on a flight to Rostov-on-Don on 1 September when she fell ill after drinking tea on the airplane, says RSF. Upon landing, she was rushed to a hospital where she recovered. Colleagues said she had not eaten anything before the trip and only had tea on the airplane.

Earlier, authorities had twice prevented her from boarding a flight to Rostov-on-Don. Politkovskaya had planned to act as a negotiator with the hostage takers in Beslan. She had played a similar role during the October 2002 incident in which Chechen rebels laid siege to a Moscow theatre. She was known for reporting on the Chechen conflict, particularly human rights violations committed by the Russian military (see: http://www.cpj.org/news/2004/Russia02sept04na.html).

IPI says these incidents make it appear as if Russian authorities are seeking to control the way the Beslan hostage crisis is reported. "The Russian people have a fundamental right to know how this event happened," the organisation says. As long as journalists are obstructed from reporting the incident, "censorship will not help authorities in making sure there is no repetition of such a terrible event."

For more information, visit:

- IFEX: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/212/
- How Vladimir Putin Controls the Media: http://www.cpj.org/attacks03/europe03/russia.html
- IPI: http://www.freemedia.at/Protests2004/pr_Russia07.09.04.htm
- IPI Report on Russia: http://www.freemedia.at/r_wl_russia.htm
- IFJ: http://www.ifj.org/default.asp?Index=2684&Language=EN
- RSF: http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=11322
- Media Wary of Beslan Coverage: http://www.alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk/L07645516.htm
- Anna Politkovskaya Describes Her Ordeal: http://tinyurl.com/4cbnq
(Image courtesy of RSF)

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