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Behind the Lines: Update on Andrei Babitsky

February 25, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: For the last month Russian journalist Andrei Babitsky has been caught in the cross fire of the ongoing war in Chechnya. A war correspondent for U.S.-funded Radio Liberty, Babitsky was arrested in late January. Then in an extraordinary development captured on this video, the Russian military allegedly turned him over to Chechen rebels in exchange for the release of some of their own soldiers. Nothing was heard from Babitsky until February 9, when a videotape was broadcast on Russian Independent Television. In it, a bruised Babitsky described his predicament in guarded tones.

ANDREI BABITSKY (speaking through interpreter): I am relatively all right. The only problem is time, because the circumstances are such that, unfortunately, I can’t come home right away. People who are around me are trying to help me. The only problem is I really want to come home. I want all this to finally end.

TERENCE SMITH: Today Babitsky suddenly surfaced, calling his wife from neighboring Dagestan. He told her he was all right and hoped to reach Moscow tomorrow. His alleged barter for Russian POWs came in the midst of a media crackdown by the government of acting president and former KGB official Vladimir Putin. Perhaps responding to international concern, Putin recently told journalists that he would assure Babitsky’s life and freedom.

Putin has said he will not suppress freedom of expression as president, but last week 32 Russian media organizations published a special edition criticizing the Kremlin for the Babitsky incident and other restrictions on media coverage in Chechnya. The paper asserted that the Russian media are experiencing open and regular suppression.

JIM LEHRER: Yesterday before Babitsky’s phone call to his wife, Terence Smith recorded this discussion.

TERENCE SMITH: For more the status of Andrei Babitsky and the current state of the Russian media, we turn to Tom Dine, president of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, headquartered in Prague; and Ellen Mickiewicz, a professor at Duke University and author of a recent book called Changing Channels: Television and the Struggle for Power in Russia. Welcome to you both. Now, it’s a fact that Andrei Babitsky’s reporting has been something of a thorn in the Kremlin’s side, has it not?

TOM DINE, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty: It’s been extraordinary because the recent violations of human rights that have been reported by Human Rights Watch and other great human rights organizations really were the essence of his reporting in December and the first part of January. Only really two media in Russia were reporting the facts of civilian deaths and violence to the Chechen citizens were NTV and Radio Liberty by Andrei Babitsky.

TERENCE SMITH: One of the television channels, NTV?


TERENCE SMITH: Do you assume, therefore, that he was first arrested by the Russian military and then ostensibly traded because of his reporting?

TOM DINE: That is a basic assumption on our part and the part of his colleagues in Russia, in Moscow particularly.

TERENCE SMITH: Is it in part because he works for a U.S.-funded radio?

TOM DINE: I don’t think so. I’d like not to think so. We may be an aggravation to certain ultra-nationalists, but I think people respect our objectivity, the fact that we uphold Western journalism’s highest standards of balance and accuracy, not just rumors. And Babitsky reported in such a way during the first Chechen war with Russia in 1994-1996 that he won awards for the accuracy of his reporting, the graphic-ness of these reports and the fact that state television and state radio and state newspapers were not reporting any of this, and this is true today.

TERENCE SMITH: Ellen Mickiewicz, what does — you’re familiar with the media in Russia. This story, what does it say to you about the state of press freedom in Russia today?

ELLEN MICKIEWICZ, Duke University: I think it’s always a struggle. It’s always tension between security and issues of national security, wartime on the one hand, and press freedom on the other. It’s always going to be a struggle. And what the Russian military had thought they would do in this war, as opposed to the first Chechen war, is simply to cordon it off and try to keep the news of what’s going on from the news organizations.

That’s not a long-term strategy that works, as we see. Information seeps out. It’s not the best idea. I think that what we are into now is a period when there is maybe setting the stage for what will happen to press freedom in Russia and setting the stage in terms of trying to carve out that area of press autonomy that has so far been won and try to stabilize it even though it may interfere with security goals in the short run or what might be thought to be efficient. Let me just say a word about the media landscape because it is interesting and it is diverse enough to give people different points of view.

Tom mentioned NTV. NTV’s coverage has differed from the other two national networks that carry a lot of news. NTV is the second largest network even though about two-thirds of Russians actually receive it. In all the polls, including the most recent ones, NTV’s coverage is thought to be far more objective and accurate than any other station. So, the other side of the press scene in Russia, I think, is that there is an audience there, an audience that is smart and savvy and able to make judgments when it sees differences in how news is covered. I think that’s really important.

TERENCE SMITH: Professor, do you think that the Russian people are getting a fair and full picture of what’s going on in Chechnya?

ELLEN MICKIEWICZ: It’s not comprehensive, of course not. That’s true. It’s very hard to gain access to this area, and although NTV is carrying news of casualties and setbacks and the other two stations are doing very little of that, so far there hasn’t really been investigation of these alleged atrocities that are coming out now, dribbling out through witnesses. But part of that is a real lack of access. NTV I think was slow to start covering this impact on civilians in Chechnya, but it is doing that now.

TERENCE SMITH: Tom Dine, what’s your view of that?

TOM DINE: I agree with what Ellen has said. The two state-owned television stations have towed the party line. This provides enormous angst for those of us who have gone through the Soviet Union period, and now we’re quite hopeful that once the curtain went up and the Soviet Union fell apart that these freedoms would come and would stay, but they’re quite fragile and the Putin government is on record as saying, ‘We must centralize authority. We must control the news and this is a war of national security and we must, therefore, report only what we want to report.’



ELLEN MICKIEWICZ: — say something there. Putin is speaking in many different ways. And I think what we’re seeing is a casting-about for just where Vladimir Putin is going to end up in terms of a possible presidential administration. Part of him does speak in the sense of, ‘We must do only what is militarily necessary and keep out the press if we think that will help,’ and on the other hand, he will pull back when receiving opposite advice and appear to understand the effects of this on the international scene and the effects of this at home because what we see at home, too, that is in Russia, is a real kind of corporate outpouring on the part of journalists in Russia to indicate their sense that these are freedoms that have to be kept and must be maintained and supported.

You referred to the special issue in which many different journalists, the Journalists Union of Russia, 120,000 strong, came out against this — came out — they are very aware of the importance of perhaps the greatest achievement that the post-Soviet Russian government has actually made possible, which is freedom of expression.

TERENCE SMITH: The flow of information. Tom Dine, what did you think when that edition came out?

TOM DINE: When that edition came out? It was fantastic. There were at least 180,000 copies that were distributed all over the streets of Moscow.

TERENCE SMITH: This is the first time they’ve done anything like this in eight or nine years.

TOM DINE: I believe two issues came out in 1991 during the failed coup of August of 1991 and then shortly thereafter when the end came for the Soviet Union and then again in October of 1993 when there was the assault on the parliament.

TERENCE SMITH: Final word, Ellen Mickiewicz?

ELLEN MICKIEWICZ: Although I think the Babitsky case is very important and I think it’s very important that it’s mobilized journalistic forces both in Russia and outside because these are the most important ones, I think, I think it’s still a case that’s closer to issues of national security, misunderstood but nonetheless national security, than it is to the everyday work of journalists. So I think it in some ways it’s a special case but one that bears great watching.

TERENCE SMITH: OK. Tom Dine, your –

TOM DINE: I can’t help but say I disagree with that. Yeltsin with all his faults, President Yeltsin, once he assumed the powers of the presidency, welcomed Radio Liberty to come to Russia physically from its headquarters in Munich at the time, come to Russia, open a bureau. He issued a presidential decree to allow us to open a bureau. The first step of Putin is to try to close us down, if you will, to silence one of our reporters. The prospects are not good.

TERENCE SMITH: All right. I’m afraid we have to leave it there. Tom Dine, Ellen Mickiewicz, thank you very much both.