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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Journalists Protest Media-MOST Raid

The raid on Media-MOST brought a diverse group of editors and publishers together Friday to protest what they see as an attack on freedom of the press and a bad start for President Vladimir Putin's term.

Putin himself released a vague statement that said he supported freedom of the press but also seemed to imply he did not see any wrongdoing in the actions of the masked commandos who conducted an all-day search of Media-MOST offices Thursday, holding employees captive in the cafeteria.

The Union of Journalists called an emergency meeting attended by leading journalists and free press advocates.

"Today we are losing everything that Russian journalism has achieved," said union chairman Vsevolod Bogdanov, adding that the raid fits into a pattern of attacks on freedom of the press.

Among Media-MOST holdings are NTV television and Ekho Moskvy, two popular sources of information that are known for their independence.

As a result of the meeting, the union issued a statement condemning the raid as an assault on press freedom, which newspaper editors in attendance pledged to print in Saturday editions. The Moscow Times editor Matt Bivens was among the signatories. (See back page.)

The union members also decided to hold a demonstration next week and publish a special edition of Obshchaya Gazeta. Such special editions are published at times when the journalistic community perceives a threat to freedom of the press. The last such issue came out when Radio Liberty journalist Andrei Babitsky went missing after his arrest in Chechnya this winter.

Representatives of Media-MOST warned other journalists to take notice.

"This will happen to everyone who is not in agreement with the government," said Alexei Venediktov, director of Ekho Moskvy. "Remember my words when they come for you in a year or two."

Igor Malashenko, first deputy chairman of Media-MOST, said Putin was obliged to state his views of the raid, which he did later through his press service.

"A free press should exist as one of the most important guarantees of the democratic development of society. As far as the investigations of criminal cases are concerned, everyone is equal before the law, no matter what business they are in," Putin's statement said.

"Any attempts to create a favorable position for oneself by making accusations or threats in regard to the observance of the law are as inadmissable as limitations on freedom of speech and freedom of the press."

Officials at the Prosecutor General's Office and the Federal Security Service have said the search was connected to a case against the Media-MOST security service. FSB spokesman Alexander Zdanovich said Thursday the security service had eavesdropped on conversations, including those of its own employees.

Malashenko, who said Media-MOST executives knew beforehand that some law enforcement action against the company was being planned, said Zdanovich's statement had no foundation and the company would sue him for libel.

"This is a classic KGB move," he said. "I don't see any other goal of these remarks except to destabilize the journalistic staff."

Press Minister Mikhail Lesin said the raid could not be characterized as an attack on the media because Media-MOST itself is not a media outlet, but merely a holding company. In an interview on Echo Moskvy, he said the events would not effect the media owned by the company.

NTV general director and anchor Yevgeny Kiselyov took issue with this logic.

"They are trying to produce an impression on the public that there is Media-MOST and there are newspapers, TV stations, a radio station that are different, which is not true. We are one team. We are all together. All the editors, general directors for different media that are part of Media-MOST, we all sit on the board of Media-MOST," he said in an interview at the dedication of the Gorbachev Foundation's new building.

Media-MOST does have an extensive security service, which is reported to employ former KGB officers.

"Companies like Media-MOST and [Kremlin insider Boris] Berezovsky form their security services from former secret service employees. I cannot say that they were not involved in eavesdropping," said Oleg Panfilov, director of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations and one of the signatories of the union statement. "But I'm sure that what happened [Thursday] was political."

Politicians from Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov to Union of Right Forces leader Sergei Kiriyenko have joined the chorus expressing disapproval for the raid.

Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov also condemned the raid at a meeting with U.S. media mogul Ted Turner. Luzhkov connected the events with the difficulties he is having renewing the license of his television station, TV Center.

On Thursday, a Moscow arbitration court ruled that a Press Ministry warning to TV Center for allegedly failing to inform the ministry of a change in address in a timely fashion was illegal. On the basis of that and a second warning, which has also been ruled illegal, the ministry called a tender for the frequency the station occupies.

Interfax quoted TV Center's lawyer Yelena Dmitriyeva as saying that the company would file suit to demand their license be automatically renewed and the tender called off, since the warnings have been pronounced illegal.

"There is a real danger of restriction of freedom," Itar-Tass quoted Luzhkov as saying.

But those parties closer to the Kremlin have either been silent or have taken the FSB's side.

Konstantin Vetrov, chairman of the State Duma's information policy committee and a member of the Liberal Democratic Party, said he did not see anythi ng illegal in the raid.

"You can't look at any investigation into the violations committed by the media as an assault on freedom of speech," Interfax quoted him as saying.

Not all the media were supportive of Media-MOST either. Notably absent from the signatories of the Union of Journalists statement were television stations and newspapers controlled by the government and by Berezovsky.

Some of those who did agree to the general meaning of the statement expressed reservations about certain aspects. Moskovskiye Novosti editor Viktor Loshak and Roskniga publisher Anatoly Lysenko had their names on the statement but later issued a clarification, saying they disagreed that the Press Ministry was partly to blame for the situation, Interfax reported.

Vladimir Sungorkin, editor of Komsomolskaya Pravda, said at the meeting that he did not share his colleagues' alarm about the Babitsky case, which was also mentioned in the statement.

Unlike most newspapers, Komsomolskaya Pravda did not express alarm at the raid in its Friday issue. In its small report, it did not call attention to the fact that the company is primarily a media holding. The newspaper incorrectly identified the building as the headquarters of MOST Bank, which was one of the founders of Media-MOST but is now separate.

Moskovsky Komsomolets editor Pavel Gusev urged solidarity among his colleagues, but he conceded it was a doomed project.

"Unfortunately, there is no solidarity today. We know why there isn't any - because there are different financial blocs and different degrees of proximity to the Kremlin," he said.

He said that many journalists did not lend their support when MK muckraker Alexander Khinshtein was being pressured by police to undergo a psychiatric exam.

"Everyone was trying to figure out whether Khinshtein is good or bad. And I was saying, this is not about Khinshtein."