Magazine article The Spectator

How Putin Silences the Journalists Who Criticise His Brutality in Chechnya

Magazine article The Spectator

How Putin Silences the Journalists Who Criticise His Brutality in Chechnya

Article excerpt

The Prime Minister has enjoined us to be 'in complete solidarity with Russia and the Russian people', and invites us to draw a parallel between the terrorist threat from al-Qa'eda and the threat posed by Chechen lunatics. I am not so sure about that. Is it not possible that if Osama bin Laden had never been born and there had been no attack on the World Trade Center, Russia would still be besieged by appallingly cruel home-grown terrorists? It is easy to feel a sense of solidarity with the people of Beslan, even of Russia, but impossible to identify with President Putin and his government. We do not share the same values. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Putin's almost totalitarian treatment of the media.

When he became President four years ago, Russia had what approximated to an independent media. Now all television channels and nearly all newspapers are controlled directly or indirectly by the Kremlin. Putin nationalised the liberal NTV channel by putting it in the hands of Gazprom, a state-backed gas company. The country's last independent television channel was shut down last year on the pretext of financial insolvency. A law passed last summer threatens newspapers with closure if, during an election period, they express any opinion about a politician's policies, his campaign or his personality. Intimidated by these and other new laws, many newspaper journalists practise self-censorship. There has been very little critical coverage of Putin's human rights abominations in Chechnya. Television cameras follow Putin slavishly around Russia, portraying him in a heroic light.

Nonetheless, the Kremlin has not totally succeeded in throttling the independent media, as was clear from the reaction of some newspapers to the Russian government's amazingly inept handling of the crisis in Beslan. Izvestia published shocking pictures of the siege, and questioned the claim by officials that there had been only 350 hostages in the school. It also denounced the censored coverage of events on statecontrolled television, though on one channel a commentator by the name of Sergei Brilyov was brave enough to call on the government to come clean about the ending of the siege. Another newspaper, Moskovsky Komsomolets, brazenly accused the authorities of 'lying to us all the time'. The government reacted by securing the dismissal of the editor of Izvestia, Raf Shakirov. Two Russian journalists with independent views on Chechnya were not even allowed to get to Beslan. Andrci Babitsky of Radio Liberty was arrested at Moscow's Vnukovo airport last Thursday, and thrown in jail for five days. Anna Politkovskaya of Novaya Gazeta, a fearless critic of Russian atrocities in Chechnya, was mysteriously taken ill on a plane to Rostov after drinking tea supplied by a stewardess.

The Russian government's reaction shows how much it dislikes even an occasional expression of editorial freedom. Possibly there will be a further crackdown after Beslan, as previous crises have precipitated harsher laws against the media. Let us sympathise with the Russian people. Let us even have a pragmatic relationship with the Russian government where we do indeed share common interests. But I personally do not wish to be put by Tony Blair in the same boat as President Putin. The crisis in Chechnya extends much further than the socalled war against terror. Putin, like Yeltsin before him, has behaved like a butcher there. And his attitude towards his country's media is barely more enlightened than that of the Soviet leaders who preceded him. …

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