The Kremlin and ABC
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SIMON MARKS: It’s been a week since ABC News aired the interview with the Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basayev, who acknowledges being the mastermind behind many of Russia’s deadliest terror attacks and is considered by Moscow to be the country’s most wanted man. The interview was conducted by Russian journalist Andrei Babitsky, a correspondent with the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. Babitsky claims he had no idea he was even going to meet Basayev when he traveled to Chechnya without Russian government permission during a recent vacation. He then sold his material on a freelance basis to ABC News.
The broadcast plunged already-fractured relations between the Kremlin and the news media to a new low. The Russians, enraged that ABC refused repeated requests not to air the interview, announced moves that if enforced will effectively ban the network from working in the country. The government says it will no longer process ABC’s applications for journalistic accreditations or visas, essential tools of the trade in Moscow for both western and locally-recruited staff working for overseas news outlets. And Russian officials say ABC staff currently in Moscow will be offered no further cooperation. The Russian defense minister branded the network an outlaw.
SERGEI IVANOV (Translated): Today, I have given orders to the head of the press service that not one serviceman of the defense ministry should have contact with the American channel ABC. We will continue to act openly with the press, but this channel will not be invited to the defense ministry and no interviews will be given to it. This channel is now persona non grata.
SIMON MARKS: On the broadcast, ABC told viewers it believed that President Vladimir Putin himself was driving efforts to dissuade the network from transmitting the interview. The intensity of the Russian leader’s feelings about Shamil Basayev has never been in doubt. The Kremlin put a $10 million price on his head for his role planning the Beslan School siege a year ago that killed 330 people, more than half of them children.
On the broadcast, Basayev also claimed responsibility for the 2002 siege of a Moscow theater that ended with the deaths of 130 people when Russian forces pumped a narcotic gas into the building. He also acknowledged his role in a variety of other attacks and accepted the proposition that he is a terrorist.
Nightline anchor Ted Koppel, also the managing editor of the broadcast, said in the program that transmission of the interview in no way implied that ABC was condoning Basayev’s activities.
TED KOPPEL: Freedom of speech is never an issue when a popular person expresses an acceptable point of view. It is of real value only because it guarantees us access to the unpopular espousing the unacceptable. Then, we can reject or accept it, condemn it or embrace it. No one should have the authority to make that decision for us.
SIMON MARKS: ABC News executives declined our requests for an interview about their decision to air last week’s program, but the company did issue a statement saying: “The mission of a free press is to cover news events — even those involving illegal acts — to help our audience to understand the important issues that confront us all. ABC News deeply regrets the action taken by the Russian government against ABC journalists operating in Russia, but we cannot allow any government to deter us from reporting the news fully and accurately.”
ABC is not the first television network to air an interview with Shamil Basayev. Earlier this year, the Russians asked the British government to intervene to prevent Independent Television News of London from transmitting an interview it acquired with the rebel leader. The British government demurred, the interview was screened, and the Russians while unhappy took no retaliatory action against ITN.
In Moscow, a political analyst with ties to the Kremlin told the NewsHour that President Putin views the Nightline broadcast as Chechen propaganda, and he defended the government’s action against ABC.
SERGEI MARKOV (Translated): American TV does not give time to bin Laden, who kills Americans. It does not give airtime to the terrorists who kill British and French people. But they do give airtime to terrorists who kill Russians. Why did they film this? To boost their ratings. Why do they need ratings? To make more money.
So these people are journalists without conscience who want to earn money on the blood of our compatriots. We have to strike at their profits and show them they will not be allowed to make money out of the blood of our citizens.
SIMON MARKS: But other Russian analysts with no ties to the Kremlin say Moscow’s fury is based on humiliation over the fact that a journalist was seemingly able to contact and interview a man that Russian forces have failed to catch.
NIKOLAI PETROV: Yeah, absolutely. Not only they can’t catch Basayev for ten years — even offering $10 million for his head — but they can’t even well protect the borders of Chechnya from any independent journalists to come in and to come out.
SIMON MARKS: And the journalist in question, Andrei Babitsky, is no favorite of the Kremlin’s. Indeed, Putin advisers claim he is “bordering on the insane.” In January 2000, he was apprehended in Chechnya by Russian forces while on assignment for Radio Liberty. The Russians handed him over to Chechen rebels in a prisoner exchange that won the release of some Russian soldiers. But it put Babitsky’s fate in the hands of rebels the Russians call terrorists, who held him for over a month.
That, coupled with the Russian government’s takeover of NTV, the once-independent television network that made its name through no-holds-barred coverage of the war in Chechnya, led Russia’s reform-minded journalists to conclude that President Putin sought full control over all reporting from the breakaway region. Among an unscientific survey of visitors to Red Square this week, we found mixed support for the Putin administration’s views on media freedom.
MAN ON STREET (Translated): They are professionals, and they probably have done something wrong if the government is closing them down. They should know the rules of the country where they’re working.
WOMAN ON STREET (Translated): Of course, it’s not fair that they took their accreditation away. It’s wrong. We have no limitations for the press. Everyone deserves to know. We are not in a Communist country any more.
MAN (Translated): I think every television station has a right to broadcast whatever they want, of course, while following ethical principle. But I think if every channel aims to satisfy just one man that means no freedom of the press.
SIMON MARKS: For now, the future of the ABC bureau in the Russian capital is in doubt. And from the Kremlin, the word has gone out to Russian and foreign journalists alike that securing an interview with Shamil Basayev is a tough assignment, but the consequences of publishing it may be tougher still.