Features

The Babitsky affair

International | Official lies over the kidnapping of a journalist suggest Russian freedoms are in jeopardy

Issue: "1st-grade murder," March 11, 2000

in Moscow - The case of Andrei Babitsky, a journalist for U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty who has been missing for more than a month, was not resolved with his dramatic emergence in late February. Six weeks into his mysterious disappearance in the Russian province of Chechnya, the 35-year-old journalist telephoned his wife from Dagestan to say he was well and soon to be reunited with her. Hours later, however, Russian authorities arrested Mr. Babitsky for, they contend, carrying a false passport. Mr. Babitsky was released again, on Feb. 29, but charges of falsifying documents-a criminal offense that carries a two-year prison sentence-remain. Security officials first arrested Mr. Babitsky in late January as he left Grozny, where he was covering the war in Chechnya. The correspondent, a Russian citizen, drew official wrath when he ventured beyond carefully controlled information released by military authorities to report more accurately about the war. His coverage included reports from the viewpoint of the Chechen rebels, and gave careful accounts of civilian and military casualties, including atrocities committed by Russian soldiers. Further irking authorities, his broadcasts for the Prague-based radio organization remained outside Russian control, reaching much of Europe and Russia. With Russia's military forces bogged down in Chechnya, the military viewed Mr. Babitsky as a traitor. Retaliation came on Jan. 13, when militia officers raided his Moscow apartment and demanded of his wife photos that he had taken of Russian army casualties. He was questioned in Chechnya the next day by federal forces, and last called home on Jan. 15. Ten days later Russian government officials said that Mr. Babitsky would soon be returned. But on Feb. 3, they announced that he had been traded to Chechen rebels in exchange for three Russian prisoners of war. Chechen rebel leaders deny that Mr. Babitsky was ever traded into their hands. Human-rights groups and journalists charged that a videotape showing the handover was a fake. Nor did the Russian soldiers who were allegedly swapped for Mr. Babitsky ever surface. Upon his release, Mr. Babitsky said he was detained by Chechens loyal to Moscow. He did not believe they were part of any rebel group. The passport charges were another tragi-comic twist. Mr. Babitsky's lawyer Alexander Zozulya, who traveled to Dagestan last week to try to secure the journalist's release, said his client does not need a false passport. "He has a Russian passport, a passport for external use and accreditation from the Russian Foreign Ministry," Mr. Zozulya said. The Babitsky affair sends "a chilling message" about freedom of the press in Moscow, said U.S. State Department official Evelyn Lieberman, who visited Moscow in mid-February and raised the case with Russian officials. The case also has gained notoriety on Capitol Hill. The day before Mr. Babitsky's reappearance, Senate Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Jesse Helms introduced a resolution in the Senate condemning Moscow's "contradictory and dismissive" responses to inquiries about Mr. Babitsky. Sen. Helms also warned the Russian leadership: "It is premature to consider summit meetings at a time when the Russian government remains contemptuously dismissive of Babitsky and our concerns about his safety, not to mention the international community's call for a just peace in Chechnya." Mr. Helms also warned President Clinton not to meet with Russia's acting president, Vladimir Putin, who is widely favored to win Russia's March 26 presidential election, until he gives a full account of the journalist's detention. Colleagues of the Radio Liberty reporter, along with his wife, Ludmilla, doubted that he was still alive, until the surprise phone call Feb. 25. Mario Corti, director of Russian Service for Radio Liberty, said Russians continued to hold him "because he would tell the truth about how he was treated." He said he had information that Mr. Babitsky was held at the notorious "filtration camp" of Chernokozova in northern Chechnya and was severely beaten. (The Chernokozova detention facility holds Chechen men, including boys as young as 14, and some women. It has a reputation for physical abuse, including rape.) Mr. Corti also asserted that a phony passport was planted on Mr. Babitsky. Mr. Corti said, "If they get away with this, it is a serious threat to freedom of information in Russia. If authorities fail to respond to public opinion and political pressure, it will prompt serious fears." Although Acting President Vladimir Putin continues to issue strong public statements about the importance of a free press, Mr. Corti believes his deeds speak louder than the official line. "Putin missed a great opportunity at the beginning to detach himself from this and punish violators," Mr. Corti said. Along with other journalists, Mr. Corti sees Mr. Babitsky's detention as a trial balloon to test how far they can go to limit free speech. Guardians of free speech see the case as a litmus test for how authorities in the Putin era will treat basic liberties. In a statement earlier this month, the Russian Union of Journalists said it regards the Babitsky affair "not as an isolated episode of contemporary life but as an effective turning point in the battle for a press which serves society and not the authorities." The statement appeared on the front page of a special edition of Obshchaya Gazeta ("Joint Newspaper")-a newspaper published in Russia only when press freedom is in danger. Thirty media organizations joined forces to produce this edition, which has been released only three other times in Russia's post-communist history, the first in 1991 during the attempted coup. Heads of several leading media organizations also led a public rally in the center of Moscow demanding Mr. Babitsky's immediate return. The rally soon grew into a protest against Mr. Putin, and federal authorities were charged with using Gestapo-like tactics. Currently most major news media outlets in Russia are owned by a group of wealthy tycoons, known as "the Oligarchs." They skillfully use the media against government officials who refuse to cooperate in their best interests. In a kind of quid pro quo, they in turn are being pressured by Mr. Putin in order to receive government concessions. It is widely known that during the campaign leading up to Dec. 1 parliamentary elections, the media were unashamedly manipulated to produce results favorable to the Oligarchs. Those returns did not hurt Mr. Putin, either. The Oligarchs have increasingly questioned coverage of the Chechen campaign. On the same day the Union of Journalists distributed their Obshchaya Gazeta statement, the English-language newspaper Moscow Times carried a front-page story reporting on Gazprom chairman Rem Vyakhiren's warning to NTV television. Gazprom natural gas monopoly owns 30 percent of NTV, a private television station. Mr. Vyakhiren reportedly abandoned a policy of non-involvement to criticize NTV television for its Chechnya reports. "In my view, the actions of federal forces in Chechnya are absolutely appropriate in the existing circumstances, and highlighting some negative aspects of their struggle against bandits is simply inappropriate," he said. Gazprom's interests, he added, "cannot contradict the interests of the state." Outside the region, Russia watchers also worry about restrictions against speaking out. Larry Uzzell, long-time Moscow correspondent and now head of Keston News Service, called restrictions under Mr. Putin "the most startling assault on freedom of the press since the mid-1980s." He said other journalists have been harassed like Mr. Babitsky, and said one Russian journalist, who specialized in reporting on official corruption, was recently threatened with forced confinement to a psychiatric hospital.

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