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Russian Media Crackdown Nothing New for Regions

_____Special Report_____
Putin vs. the Oligarchs

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By Sharon LaFraniere
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, September 11, 2000; Page A16

MOSCOW, Sept. 10 –– When Yefim Shusterman, founder of Volgograd's largest newspaper, hears Moscow newscasters and media barons complaining about a Kremlin-ordered press crackdown, his first reaction is: Come to Volgograd.

The media have felt pressured for years in that city on the Volga River, 650 miles due south of Moscow, ever since the regional governor began dangling subsidies for postage, newsprint and the like before media owners who toed his line. Then, this summer, most media outlets in Volgograd signed an agreement with Russia's domestic security service voluntarily censoring what they say about it.

Under the agreement, the Federal Security Service, a successor to the KGB, agreed to provide information about its activities, and journalists agreed to convey the information to the public "without giving any commentaries." Any negative information about the FSB, as the agency is known by its Russian initials, cannot be published or broadcast until the FSB is contacted and "competent bodies look into it."

Irina Chernova, an investigative reporter who follows events in Volgograd for the Moscow-based Center for Protection of the Rights of the Press, said she was "terrified" when she read the agreement. In essence, she said, it asked newspapers to act as the FSB's mouthpiece.

Shusterman, whose independent newspaper Inter has 144,000 readers, said he politely thanked the FSB officer who called to ask if he had received the document in the mail. He said he rejected it on the grounds it violated the federal mass media law that expressly gives journalists the right to comment on the facts they gather. He said he has suffered no repercussions for his refusal to go along.

But most Volgograd editors signed the document without a word of protest. The FSB told Chernova's group that 30 of 37 media outlets agreed to the deal, although at least three newspapers demanded that certain passages, such as the restriction on commentary, be crossed out. One of them was the weekly Moskovsky Komsomolets-Volgograd, whose deputy general director, Yevgeny Romanov, called the agreement "a feeble attempt" at control.

Igor Kuznetsov, head of the Volgograd regional FSB press office, and his deputy, Vladimir Meshalkin, described the agreement as an attempt to provide the media with more accurate, more complete information. Meshalkin said in a telephone interview last week that the only purpose was "to restore greater order" to media coverage of the FSB.

Kuznetsov said the FSB did not violate journalists' rights and that it only asked them to voluntarily give up their legal right to publish their own judgments. He told a Russian newspaper such agreements were common in other regions.

The idea took off in Volgograd. Regional offices of the Interior Ministry and the federal tax police approached newspapers, television and radio stations with almost identical agreements, according to local journalists and Chernova, who writes for the Moscow daily Novaya Gazeta.

The agreement is another example of what media rights groups say is a concerted attack on media freedom outside Moscow. In the capital, attention is riveted on what appears to be a series of anti-media moves by President Vladimir Putin--from the Russian army's mistreatment in Chechnya of Andrei Babitsky, a reporter for the U.S.-funded Radio Liberty, to the arrest and brief imprisonment of media tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky, to alleged Kremlin threats against Boris Berezovsky, another media magnate.

Part of the Kremlin's strategy came to light earlier this month, critics said, with the disclosure that the federal government's 2001 budget for expenditures on the media has been classified top-secret. That means the public won't know which journalists are financially dependent on the federal officials they cover.

Oleg Panfilov, who runs a press rights group called the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, said the media come under attack in Russian regions every day. In a recent interview, he reeled off a series of examples, ranging from the confiscation of a reporter's videotape on an explosion in Ryazan in southern Russia to a police raid and search of an often critical newspaper in Yekaterinburg in the Ural mountains.

Panfilov said the most immediate danger from Putin's attempts to control the media is that regional authorities, already practiced at stifling the press, will regard the Kremlin's actions as a green light for their own crackdowns.

"The governors have been fighting with the mass media for a long time already," he said. "And now that they see that the federal authorities regard these things calmly, they will finish the local press."

Shusterman agreed. His newspaper is one of the few--if not the only one--in Volgograd that does not survive on financial handouts from the governor's office, he said. With the benefit of cheaper postal fees, paper and printing costs, his state-funded competitors can charge a fraction of what he does. Shusterman has to publish his newspaper with profits from a clothing store and some kiosks he owns.

In his view, the real struggle for freedom of the press is in the regions, and the press is already down for the count. "Here in the provinces," he said, "the independent press is going to die first."

2000 The Washington Post Company