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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Papers Unite to Defend Babitsky, Free Speech




Much of Moscow's journalism community came out Wednesday in defense of missing Radio Liberty correspondent Andrei Babitsky, calling his case a test of freedom of speech in Russia and asking Boris Yeltsin what it says about the continuation of his legacy.


Thirty media organizations joined together to put out a special edition of Obshchaya Gazeta, or Joint Newspaper, in a tradition that began during a crackdown on the press in 1991.


However, several major newspapers - including Izvestia and two owned by Boris Berezovsky - stayed away, underscoring the political aspects of the Babitsky case.


"A threat to freedom of speech in Russia has for the first time in the last several years transformed into its open and regular suppression," leaders of the Russian Union of Journalists, who organized the special edition, wrote in a statement that led the paper.


The Babitsky case has been perceived by reporters "not as an isolated episode, but almost as a turning point in the struggle for a press that serves the society and not the authorities," the statement said.


It listed the creation last year of a Press Ministry to oversee the media, the information wars that "buried the very notion of democratic elections" for the State Duma and the restrictions on news reporting from the Caucasus as part of a pattern of infringement on the freedom of the press.


The first time such a joint publication came out was during the 1991 attempted coup, when censorship was introduced and liberal newspapers were shut down. It reappeared again in 1992 when the Supreme Soviet attempted to renationalize privatized Izvestia, and in 1994 when Moskovsky Komsomolets investigative reporter Dmitry Kholodov was murdered.


Under the headline "Wanted," Wednesday's special edition ran a short biography of Babitsky noting that he received a special award from Yeltsin for his coverage of the 1991 coup attempt, which he later returned to Yeltsin after the 1993 shelling of the White House. The newspaper also reprinted Yeltsin's decree signed in August 1991 that allowed U.S.-funded Radio Liberty to operate in Russia in recognition of its "role in ... informing Russian citizens about the course of democratic reforms."


On the front page, the paper posed a question to Russia's first president: "Do you think that what is happening today [to Babitsky] and to freedom of speech is a worthy continuation of your course?"


The special edition ran the opinions of several well-known writers under a common headline, "I Accuse." Komsomolskaya Pravda journalist Alexander Yevtushenko contributed a report about finding traces of Babitsky in the filtration prison in Chernokozovo in northern Chechnya.


The paper also printed transcripts of some of Babitsky's radio reports from Chechnya before he was detained by Russian forces in mid-January. The Kremlin said he was traded to Chechen rebels Feb. 3 in exchange for captured Russian soldiers, but many journalists suspect he is still in the hands of federal authorities, or dead.


The publication of Wednesday's special edition was coordinated by the Obshchaya Gazeta weekly, a regular edition that borrowed the name of the 1991 joint newspaper.


Vitaly Yaroshevsky, deputy editor of Obshchaya Gazeta weekly, said 300,000 copies of the special edition were printed with money collected by the Union of Journalists. The paper was distributed free in the Moscow metro, alongside the free Metro newspaper. Obshchaya Gazeta employees also gave it out Wednesday morning on the streets of Moscow and it could be obtained in kiosks run by Obshchaya Gazeta.


The entire print run was distributed and 200,000 more copies were to be printed and distributed Thursday, Yaroshevsky said.


The 30 media organizations represent the interests of millions of Russian citizens, Yaroshevsky said. "In the place of anyone in power, I would have noticed that [hiding the truth about Babitsky] is not like playing with toys," he said. "We are against lawlessness and say it bluntly, without using the subjunctive."


The list of media organizations that supported the joint edition speaks volumes about the political divisions within the Russian media community. Among them are all publications affiliated with Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, as well as those that are part of Vladimir Gusinsky's media empire, including NTV television and Ekho Moskvy radio. Communist newspaper Sovietskaya Rossiya and liberal Moskovskiye Novosti and Novaya Gazeta are on board, too, as is the Glasnost Defense Fund.


But conspicuously absent are Boris Berezovsky's Kommersant and Nezavisimaya Gazeta; Vremya MN, which is believed to be backed by the Central Bank; and major dailies Izvestia and Trud. The Union of Journalists did not approach The Moscow Times or Vedomosti, a business daily also published by Independent Media.


Vitaly Tretyakov, editor of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, said Wednesday the sponsors are those who oppose acting President Vladimir Putin "in a united front."


Tretyakov, who is a secretary of the Union of Journalists, said he was not invited to the meeting of the secretariat at which the decision was made to put out the special edition. He later offered to provide his paper's logo for the joint project if it agreed to run his article on the front page. But the proposal was turned down, he said.


Last week, Tretyakov published an editorial in which he argued that in pleading for Babitsky, Russian journalists are acting correctly, but oversimplifying the issue.


Babitsky's "exchange" was a clumsy operation by Russian special services, Tretyakov wrote, and they deserve the stern criticism. But what is missing is criticism of Chechen fighters and of Radio Liberty, which he said promotes U.S. interests too aggressively. Although Babitsky is a Russian citizen, Tretyakov said he serves as a "foreign" journalist.


Tretyakov said he did not consult with Berezovsky on his decision not to take part in the joint edition, but said Berezovsky had telephoned him last week to express his full support for the editorial.


Leonid Bershidsky, editor of Vedomosti, said he would not have taken part in the joint edition even if he had been asked. Last week, he said he refused to sign a petition by Russian journalists in support of Babitsky, in part because he did not want to be associated with some other signatories.


"We have our own point of view on the Babitsky case, and we don't need any other pulpit to speak on it," Bershidsky said. "In this case, everybody is on his own."