Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Babitsky Affair Blow for Press Freedom

Vladimir Putin's anti-media drive may serve to consolidate democratic opposition against the acting president's regime
By Vladimir Ignatiev

The mysterious disappearance of Radio Liberty journalist Andrei Babitsky casts a chilling shadow over the future of press freedom in Russia today.

The Radio Liberty reporter became the focus of an international outcry after he went missing on January 15 whilst attempting to leave the Chechen capital. He had previously exasperated federal authorities by his unbiased reports from the breakaway republic.

Moscow refused to admit Babitsky was in federal custody until January 28 when he was charged with entering the military exclusion zone without the necessary accreditation. However, less than a week later, the Russian authorities announced that the journalist had been handed over to the Chechens in exchange for two Russian prisoners-of-war.

The exchange was screened on national television, showing a dishevelled and depressed Babitsky being surrendered to two masked men in combat uniforms. Chechen leaders promptly denied any knowledge of the deal but the Kremlin insisted that Babitsky had agreed to the handover and effectively washed its hands of responsibility for his subsequent fate.

The weekly newspaper, Moscow News, speculates that Babitsky was in fact handed over to a group of pro-Russian Chechens and fears for his safety. Radio Liberty chiefs believe their reporter is already dead.

However, the official version of events is littered with contradictions. In an article which appeared in Itogi magazine on Feburary 15, Galina Kovalskaya noted that Moscow was devoting considerable efforts to convincing the public that the exchange really did take place, which is to say they "assume that the exchange was a justifiable action".

Even if we assume that Babitsky was legally detained, his subsequent surrender to "Chechen terrorists" was glaringly illegal. Handing over a Russian subject to people whom his own government believes to be criminals is the equivalent of punishing an innocent man.

However, the crucial point is that the Russian law-enforcement agencies operate in a totally different reality, where concepts such as "the law" and "civil freedom" are secondary to "order", "stability" and "protecting state interests" - values which are embodied in the figure of the acting president, Vladimir Putin.

On February 9, answering a question from a Komsomolskaya Pravda reader, Putin stated that Babitsky voluntarily joined those whose interests he had been protecting. We must therefore conclude that any journalist who attempts to report the realities of the war in Chechnya is seen to be championing the rebel cause.

Unfortunately, a significant portion of Russian society shares this opinion. Even Izvestia, with its traditionally liberal outlook, scornfully described Babitsky as an "adrenaline-seeker", prepared "to serve any master, be it Basaev, Khattab or Beelzebub himself". The hugely popular Argumenty i Fakty dubbed Radio Liberty the "voice of the CIA".

By focusing on the plight of the Chechen people, Babitsky was flying in the face of popular opinion, challenging the widely held belief that the entire Chechen nation is collectively responsible for crimes allegedly committed by a handful of terrorists.

Furthermore, the journalist was sponsored by a radio station which is financed by the United States. Many Russians believe that this fact reflects a conscious decision on Babitsky's part to turn against his own society and join the enemy ranks.

The idea that Russia is a besieged fortress - which has been carefully fostered by the Kremlin since the Balkans Conflict - refuses to recognise any middle ground. The Bolshevik slogan, "Whoever isn't with us is against us", is once again finding a responsive audience.

In the short-term, the Babitsky Affair will serve to bolster Putin's popularity. Most voters find it perfectly natural that a journalist with Chechen sympathies should be handed over to his "comrades" in exchange for "our boys". Voices raised in defence of Babitsky generally fall on deaf ears.

However, there is still a solid core of democrats in Russia who believe that Andrei Babitsky was the victim of a conscious government policy to limit freedom of speech. Under the guise of "regulating the relationship between the mass media and the government", the Putin administration has launched an attack on all fronts.

This is particularly evident in Chechnya where, the federal propaganda machine has used every means at its disposal to promote the official version of events. (On February 3, for example, the Federal Security Service announced that the separatists had set aside $1.5 billion for buying off journalists).

But the disturbing trend is by no means confined to the battlefields. On February 8, two Putin supporters at St Petersburg University, the rector Lyudmila Verbitskaya and Nikolai Kropachov, dean of the law faculty, published an open letter slamming the satirical TV show Kukly (Puppets) for defaming the acting president "with regard to the manner in which he performs his official duties".

The episode indicates that the anti-media mood is not confined to the Kremlin. Putin's voters believe their "strong leader" should be exempt from any form of undignified satire. (Verbitskaya was later appointed Putin's agent for his presidential bid).

Attempts to control the Internet also give cause for concern. Plans are afoot to bring the registration of media-related Internet sites under state control and to license their virtual activities. This will leave media organisations at the mercy of the bureaucrats who can remove their licenses on any pretext and ban uncooperative newspapers or public organisations from publishing online.

However, in the long run, these repeated attacks on press freedom may lead to a consolidation of forces opposed to Putin and his heavy-handed statecraft.

Already, Putin's anti-media drive is forcing journalists to unite. February 16 saw a special issue of the Obschaya Gazeta - a newspaper born out of the 1991 Putsch which is only published when press freedom is under threat. Thirty newspapers, TV channels and radio stations took part in the initiative, protesting against the government's hostile attitude.

And Russian journalists have scored one palpable victory over state control. On Wednesday, the Ministry for Internal Affairs agreed to drop proceedings against Alexander Khinstein, a correspondent for Moskovsky Komsomolets, who had written articles linking Putin supporter Boris Berezovsky with rebel Chechen gangs. The ministry whipped up a storm of protest when it attempted to have Khinstein committed to a psychiatric hospital, in a chilling flashback to the bad old days of Soviet repression.

Now it remains to be seen whether or not the nation's journalists will be able to gain significant support from the public and from factions within the State Duma which describe themselves as democratic. Today, the struggle for freedom of speech is unlikely to influence the results of the presidential elections -- but the presence of an active and effective opposition will help to prevent further attacks on democratic freedom in the wake of Putin's election victory.

Vladimir Ignatiev is a political analyst from St Petersburg.