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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Scary Climate for Press

Although Boris Yeltsin won the elections, the Russian media -- which opted unabashedly to back the president -- has lost.

Once lauded as the most democratic institution in society, Russia's fourth estate will have to prove itself all over again amid charges of bias and lack of professionalism. The issues aren't just credibility or crying wolf about communism, but a chronic dependency on government handouts and a more ominous tendency toward self-censorship. In fairness, however, few detractors of the press appreciate the difficult, even frightening, climate for the news media in Russia.

Moscow's television and newspaper reporters have impressed the world with their hard-hitting coverage, but little is known about the incredible persistence they need to perform their jobs.

Throughout the Chechen conflict, Russian troops have failed to honor credentials and hindered journalists during the worst battles, jamming satellite transmissions, exposing film and even firing on their cars. Last year, the Yeltsin government threatened to revoke the license of the independent NTV for its unflinching coverage of the carnage, and then tried to prosecute a reporter for interviewing a Chechen leader. Recent private investment in NTV by the gas conglomerate Gazprom, once run by Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, may give the station more latitude but could mean other limitations.

Although independent television, radio and print media have thrived since 1991 -- to the point where lionizing Yeltsin and snubbing Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov was declared a free editorial decision -- paradoxically under Yeltsin, the press has suffered its most brutal attacks in decades. Despite reliance on the media's support, the Yeltsin government has failed to properly investigate and prosecute the murders of journalists, let alone track down the sources of threats.

The Committee to Protect Journalists has confirmed that since 1994, at least 13 journalists have been assassinated and four are missing and presumed dead, including American freelance photojournalist Andrew Shumack, last seen in Grozny on July 28, 1995. These figures are comparable to the correspondents' death toll under the world's worst regimes. Through his inaction, Yeltsin has signaled that journalists may be killed with impunity.

Such attacks do not emanate from the president's office as such, but stem from his historical lack of control over the "power ministries" (army, police and security) and from their failure, in turn, to control violent groups in society. The much ballyhooed "clean sweep" of corrupt ministries by new security chief Alexander Lebed isn't a substitute for the institutionalized civilian oversight of a free press. Nor are parliamentary inquiries -- though welcome -- equivalent to investigative journalism. Such efforts do not address the dangers faced by journalists whose probing of sensitive topics like corruption in the army or in business has led to their deaths in mafia-style contract killings. In 1996 alone, three journalists were gunned down in or near their homes and three assassinated in Chechnya. Several more were brutally beaten and others narrowly escaped assaults or suffered anonymous warnings.

In 1995, RUFA correspondent Natalya Alyakina was shot after being waved through a checkpoint during a Chechen hostage crisis. Following a bungled investigation, an Interior Ministry soldier was convicted last month on the lesser charge of "involuntary manslaughter through misuse of firearms." Yeltsin and other high officials have failed to make good on their original, highly publicized promises to obtain justice.

In March, Nadezhda Chaikova, a prominent war correspondent for the weekly Obshchaya Gazeta who was known for her expos?s of Russian military atrocities and her close contacts with the Chechen resistange, was found murdered execution-style in a Chechen village. Russian federal troops are suspects, although Chechen leaders themselves may have ordered her death, believing she was a spy and acting on rumors spread by the KGB's successor, the Federal Security Service, or FSB.

Other journalists confirm the FSB's role in spreading rumors to discredit those who cover Chechnya or other security-related topics. Summons for "chats" at the FSB and offers to collaborate -- or face career difficulties -- are still a fact of life that journalists and their editors fear publicizing.

The military is notorious for pressuring journalists. Izvestia disclosed in May that its correspondents have been coerced to "share information" by military prosecutors and other authorities. Editors at the feisty Moskovsky Komsomolets, or MK, have yet to reveal their allegations about the murder of reporter Dmitry Kholodov, killed by an exploding briefcase in 1994 while following up on a tip about army corruption. Recently Yulya Kalinina, another MK journalist, suffered anonymous threats and an apartment break-in after publishing articles in Itogi and Obshchaya Gazeta on officers' abuses of power. She now faces a lawsuit from the Minister of Construction over her expos? of misspent Chechen reconstruction funds.

Lebed's purges of the power ministries have been greeted with skepticism from journalists seeking relief from the pressure of government or organized crime, as well as justice for their attackers. Rather than dramatic personnel changes or anti-crime raids, a true test of the new Yeltsin administration's intentions would be removal of the obstacles to the prosecution of Kholodov's murderers and others who have attacked reporters. The Clinton administration and other Western governments who supported Yeltsin's re-election should urge him to demonstrate commitment to a free press by seeking justice for those who harm it. Russia's correspondents need a pledge of safe working conditions if the media is to re-acquire its reputation as the freest institution of Russia.

Catherine Fitzpatrick is Eurasian program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists. She contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.