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Reporter who covered Chechen war released

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    NMU         CHECHNYA         Press at Home & Abroad         Mar 8, 2000    

Reporter who covered Chechen war released

  • Radio Liberty reporter Andrei Babitsky, who was arrested and detained in Chechnya, was released and has returned to Moscow.

Radio Liberty correspondent Andrei Babitsky was returned to Moscow Feb. 29 after spending nearly one month imprisoned in Chechnya.

While covering recent events in Chechnya in January, Babitsky was arrested and detained by Russian authorities who claimed he lacked proper accreditation and was consorting with the rebels. After being held for a number of days, Babitsky was handed over to a group of masked men in return for Russian prisoners of war.

A brief videotape delivered by two unidentified men to Radio Liberty in February showed Babitsky saying he was “relatively all right” but unable to come home “immediately.”

For 11 years, Babitsky has been a correspondent for Radio Liberty, a U.S. funded station providing news, analysis and discussion of domestic and regional issues to countries where media are struggling to gain financial and editorial independence. His coverage of the first Chechen war from 1994-1996 describing attacks on civilians and Russian casualties was the cause of much controversy in Russia.

After much protest by the Russian press and public, Putin stepped in and sent a plane to fly Babitsky out of Chechnya.

Babitsky’s story is an example of the growing restrictions and penalties placed on the Russian press.

In an interview with the state-controlled television channel ORT, Putin promised, if elected, he will protect the press because it is Russia’s best protection against totalitarianism. However, his recent order have restricted press activities.

According to a Feb. 4 New York Times article, independent news media were protected under Boris Yeltsin and reporters could move about on their own during previous Chechen wars obtaining adequate footage and sound bites. Now, reporters spend most of their time waiting at a base just outside of Chechnya.

The military press service currently organizes press coverage of the war stipulating that all reporters be accompanied by the Russian military and obtain official accreditation or go on government-arranged trips. The press service decides where reporters can and cannot visit and usually arranges trips for the benefit of Russia’s three major television networks: independently owned NTV and governmentally owned RTR and ORT. Dismal scenes tend to be avoided, and crews are not to film corpses due to the negative impact these pictures have had on the public in the past, according to the Times report.

The majority of Russian media is state owned and, according to the National Press Institute of Russia, purportedly 50 percent of the Russian population has no access to information that is not generated and packaged by the state.

Media expert Oleg Panfilov criticized Putin’s gag on the press in a Feb. 21 Washington Post article.

“Such an aggressive attack on journalists like there has been under Putin never could have happened under Yeltsin,” he said. “This is the beginning of a tragic epoch for the Russian press.”

© 2000 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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