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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ministry Puts Gag on Rebel Voices

The Press Ministry has warned the media that allowing Chechen rebel leaders to speak on the air or in the pages of newspapers would violate the law on fighting terrorism and could result in sanctions.

The warning appeared to be part of an effort to put pressure on U.S.-funded Radio Liberty, which has broadcast interviews with Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov and chief Chechen separatist spokesman Movladi Udugov.

Following a meeting Tuesday of the consultative presidential Commission on Aiding the Fight Against Extremism, Deputy Press Minister Mikhail Seslavinsky named Maskhadov, Udugov and Chechen commander Shamil Basayev as among those barred from the media because they are wanted on charges of terrorism.

Press Minister Mikhail Lesin confirmed Wednesday that quoting suspected terrorists in print or allowing them to speak directly on television or radio is forbidden. According to his spokesman, paraphrasing their remarks is allowed.

As part of its determination to maintain high public support for the military campaign in Chechnya, the Kremlin wants to prevent Chechen fighters from winning any public sympathy.

"Under the law on fighting terrorism, mass media have no right to give terrorists and people suspected of terrorism an opportunity to advertise themselves," Lesin said. He did not specify the article of the law that applied.

No new procedures have been established for shutting down a newspaper or depriving a radio or television station of its broadcast license, he said. Under existing law, that can only be done by a court decision after at least two official warnings from the Press Ministry.

Lesin spoke to reporters at a news conference called to announce a journalistic prize named after missing Itar-Tass photo correspondent Vladimir Yatsina, who was taken hostage in Chechnya in July and is strongly suspected to have been killed. The $10,000 prize "for courage in carrying out professional duty" is to be awarded annually by the Press Ministry and Itar-Tass to Russian journalists who report from hot spots.

Lesin hinted that the prize is a reaction to the wide publicity given to Babitsky, who was detained in mid-January by the Russian military and then exchanged under unclear circumstances for several servicemen before being liberated by his captors.

"It often happens in modern history that the state forgets about its heroes - people who have sacrificed their lives for the sake of the Motherland," Lesin said. "It is painful that today the heroes among journalists are not the ones who have courageously carried out their duty but those who, with an impudent bravado, have mocked the Russian army and the Russian state."

As an indication that the government is focusing its attention on Radio Liberty, the station's Moscow bureau received an official letter from the Press Ministry on Monday demanding that it hand over the audio recordings of its programs from Feb. 15 through March 15 within three days, along with the journal recording the station's broadcasts during that monthlong period.

Thomas Dine, president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, said in a statement from Washington that the station will continue to interview Chechen and Russian military leaders alike in an effort to cover all sides of the conflict in the North Caucasus.

"We will comply with all legal requests from the Russian government, but we view the timing and form of this request as an act designed to intimidate us and others," Dine said in the statement. "But we will not be intimidated."

Lesin would not say what action if any his ministry would take against the station. "First, the materials have to be researched, and then conclusions can be drawn," he said.

The Press Ministry had first ordered the media not to give airtime to rebel leaders when the "anti-terrorist" operation began in Dagestan in August, and they have generally complied.

For example, an interview with Basayev was on videotapes that Babitsky gave to NTV television in December, but it was not used by the television station in its report based on Babitsky's footage.

Lesin confirmed Wednesday with satisfaction that Russian media have generally observed the rule.

Press Ministry spokesman Yury Akinshin said Wednesday that ORT television had recently contacted the Press Ministry to complain that Ekho Moskvy radio had interviewed Maskhadov on air. The ministry requested the tapes from Ekho Moskvy, but found no violation because Maskhadov's position was voiced by Ekho Moskvy journalists, Akinshin said in a telephone interview.

In developing their policy, the government appears to be following Britain, which in the 1980s banned the broadcast of interviews with or direct statements from IRA and Sinn Fein leaders. British television circumvented the special powers legislation by showing a silent picture of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, for example, while his words were spoken by a actor. The ban was lifted in 1994.

Andrei Richter, director of the Center for Law and Media at Moscow State University's department of journalism, said the legal basis of the government's demands was thin. In legal terms, they are "complete nonsense," he said.

"Nowhere in the law does it say that people suspected of terrorism are terrorists. It is against the presumption of innocence," Richter said in a telephone interview. He also said that it is not specified anywhere in the law that terrorists could not be interviewed.

Richter said he suspected the Press Ministry's actions were directed against Radio Liberty. "They are extracting some bits from the law and trying to punish those whom they don't like," he said.

He encouraged any news organizations sanctioned in connection with the regulations to immediately dispute it in a court of law.

Asked Wednesday about how captured Chechen warlord Salman Raduyev's case should be covered by the media, Lesin said that since Raduyev is under arrest, it is up to his investigators to determine press access to him.

Raduyev, who has been charged with terrorism, was shown on ORT television Monday speaking during an interrogation at Lefortovo Prison.