Reporters Without Borders activists demonstrated in Paris today against visiting Russian President Vladimir Putin's takeover of the country's main broadcasting media, censorship of news about the war in Chechnya and failure to punish killers of Russian journalists.
About 20 Reporters Without Borders activists demonstrated today outside the Paris offices of the Russian airline Aeroflot demanding press freedom in Russia and denouncing attempts to control the country's media by President Vladimir Putin, who is visiting France. They plastered the windows with posters of Putin with a Pinocchio nose and a caption of him insisting that "Russia is a democracy." The organisation denounced Putin's censorship of news about the war in Chechnya and the failure to punish the killers of journalists. The Russian government is continuing its strategy of taking over the country's main privately-owned media through acquisition by state energy companies. In 2001, it took control of the only privately-owned nationwide TV station, NTV, through the state gas company Gazprom, and also the semi-state-owned TV station ORT, which had the biggest national audience. ORT, which was very critical of Putin at the time of the Kursk submarine disaster, is now under direct state control, along with the public TV station RTR. Efforts to control the media continued last year when the independence of the station Ekho Moskvy was compromised and journalists of the station TV6 were forced to bend to associates of Putin. The authorities have also put up more obstacles to a free flow of news about the fighting in Chechnya. To do their job properly, journalists of the state-controlled media have to try to get round a wall of silence imposed by the army, while independent and foreign media are now effectively banned from Chechnya. Their freedom of movement there had been restricted since 1999 and since July 2001 they had to be escorted by an interior ministry official. The ministry further reduced coverage of the war last October by banning foreigners without special permission from going to a number of areas, including those "where anti-terrorist operations are going on," or contacting certain organisations. The order did not say how such permission could be obtained or how long it would be granted for. Censorship of material about Chechnya became much tighter at the time of last October's Moscow theatre kidnapping of 700 people by Chechen rebels and applied to both local and foreign media. Last year, Russia was the country where the largest number of journalists had been murdered without the killers being punished. At least three were killed because of their work but there was no proper enquiry into their deaths. They were Valery Ivanov, publisher of the weekly Toliatinskoie obosrenie and owner of Lada TV, Sergei Kalinovsky, editor of the daily Moskovky Komsomolets Smolensk, and Natalia Skryl, correspondent of the newspaper Nashe Vremia, all of them murdered in the provinces, far from the spotlight, for having dared to investigate corruption or ecological problems. Grigory Pasko, a journalist with the ecological magazine Ekologiya i pravo and former correspondent for the military paper Boevaya Vakhta, was freed on 23 January this year after spending nearly three years in prison accused of spying and high treason for reporting nuclear pollution by the Russian fleet in the Sea of Japan. He was freed for "good behaviour" and is still fighting to clear his name.