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Kremlin pressures Lithuania to close pro-Chechen website

(CPJ/IFEX) - The following is a 21 September 2004 CPJ press release:

KREMLIN PRESSURES LITHUANIA TO CLOSE PRO-CHECHEN WEB SITE

New York, September 21, 2004-Lithuania's State Security Department (VSD) closed the pro-Chechen Web site KavkazCenter on Friday after coming under intense pressure from the Kremlin, according to local and international press reports.

The closure came one week after Lithuanian Ambassador to Russia Rimantas Sidlauskas was summoned to the Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow for an official protest.

Russian Foreign Ministry officials insisted at the September 13 meeting that Lithuania shutter the "Chechen terrorist" Web site, according to local press reports. KavkazCenter, hosted in Lithuania by the private Internet Service Provider Elneta, is based on a server in the Vilnius apartment of Soviet-era dissident Viktoras Petkus.

The Lithuanian Foreign Ministry initially balked at the request, saying that a court ruling was required to shut down the Web site, local and international outlets reported. But Lithuanian Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas changed course on September 17 and echoed the Kremlin's criticism of the Web site, saying, "Our country's law prohibits terrorist propaganda and the instigation of ethnic hatred," The Associated Press reported.

Brazauskas made the announcement after KavkazCenter posted a statement by Chechen rebel commander Shamil Basayev claiming responsibility for a deadly hostage-taking operation in southern Russian town of Beslan that killed some 330 people on September 3.

Journalists dispute Kremlin

While KavkazCenter openly supports Chechen rebels fighting for independence from Russia, some Western and Russian journalists rely on it for information due to government restrictions on access to the war-torn region, as well as ongoing security risks for journalists there.

Some Moscow-based journalists who spoke with CPJ challenged the Kremlin's criticism of KavkazCenter, saying that the Web site does not advocate violence and regularly publishes breaking news about the war in Chechnya.

"Often they are the first to report on battles . . . [and] it's quite useful, because it allows us to call the [Russian] Defense Ministry and get their side of the story," one Moscow-based foreign correspondent who requested anonymity told CPJ. "It's very slanted, but it's not any worse than Russian [government] information."

Background

The Kremlin has spent years pressuring neighboring governments to close the Web site as part of a broader campaign to suppress independent sources of information on the war in Chechnya.

Sergei Yastrezhembsky, an adviser to President Vladimir Putin, warned Estonian authorities in April 2003 that, "Countries which aspire to partnership and mutually advantageous relations with the Russian Federation should bear in mind Russia's categorical objection to the hosting of information resources on behalf of Chechen separatists," the ITAR-TASS news agency reported.

In 2003, Russia pushed Estonian authorities to close KavkazCenter after the site posted a dramatic, two-minute video clip on April 20 that showed a devastating rebel ambush on a bus in Chechnya allegedly carrying special police.

The video, which was broadcast on some Russian television stations, severely embarrassed the Russian government, whose upbeat reports about Chechnya had failed to mention the April 15 ambush. The video provided fresh evidence that a Kremlin-orchestrated peace process in Chechnya has failed to curtail violence and normalize life in the region.

CPJ is a New York-based, independent, nonprofit organization that works to safeguard press freedom worldwide. For more information about press conditions in Russia, visit http://www.cpj.org.

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