Dagestani Newspaper Founder in Rare Probe

Investigators in Dagestan have opened an unprecedented criminal investigation into allegations that the founder of a local newspaper was interfering in the work of his own journalists.

Prosecutors suspect Rizvan Rizvanov, founder of the Nastoyashoye Vremya weekly, of illegally influencing newspaper policy, and he faces up to two years in prison if charged and convicted, a local investigator said Tuesday.

One of the country's main organizations monitoring press freedoms said that while owners of media outlets often interfere with editorial policy, they don't end up being investigated.

"From October to March, Rizvanov forced journalists to publish information that he preferred and to remove from publication information that displeased him," said Murad Aligalbatsev, a senior investigator in the Kirovsky district of the republic's capital, Makhachkala.

In one concrete instance in October, Rizvanov gave editors a list of regional journalists whose articles he did not want in the paper, said Sergei Rasulov, a former editor at Nastoyashoye Vremya.

There were nine names on the list, including the late head of state-television company GTRK Dagestan, Gadzhi Abashilov, and Channel One television reporter Ilyas Shurpayev, who were both killed in March in two separate attacks, Rasulov said.

Rasulov said Rizvanov didn't want their work published out of "personal enmity" toward the journalists.

Aligalbatsev said it was "unlikely" that Rizvanov was connected in any way with the murders.

Rasulov also said Rizvanov blocked attempts by writers to go public with their complaints in the paper.

Reached on his cell phone Tuesday afternoon, Rizvanov hung up after the journalist introduced herself and didn't answer repeated calls afterward.

A former journalist and an official at the regional National Politics, Information and External Relations Ministry, Rizvanov founded Nastoyashoye Vremya last July as an independent news outlet, Rasulov said.

"We received full guarantees that there would be no political intervention with the newspaper's activities for the next three years," Rasulov said. "Rizvanov started breaking those guarantees as early as last summer, but at first we managed to cope with this successfully ourselves."

The journalists finally took their complaints to regional investigators in early April, and the criminal investigation against Rizvanov was opened on June 16, investigator Aligalbatsev said.

Rizvanov's case might be transferred to court in two months, Kirovsky district senior investigator Aligalbatsev said.

Oleg Panfilov, director of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, called Rizvanov's case "unique."

He said "journalists often complain" of interference by the media outlet founders into the editors' policy, but "they are not able to prove anything."

Panfilov said the media in Dagestan are controlled by a number of powerful ethnic clans, which present alternative perspectives of news, as opposed to other Russian regions where the regional administration often controls most media outlets.