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Debate Over Media Freedoms Emerges in Russia

Two recent high-profile articles are making news in Russia this month; one is a frank and widely distributed assessment the country's current and historic problems by President Dmitri Medvedev. The other article alleges that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was behind a series of apartment bombings in 1999 in order to consolidate power in the name of security. But the U.S. publisher of that article has withheld its release in Russia.

Mr. Medvedev's article, entitled, Go Russia, has been widely distributed online and in print. It outlines Russian corruption, lack of economic diversification, demographic decline and authoritarian traditions.

The American publisher of the other article, Conde Nast, has not released it online or in the Russian edition of the U.S. men's fashion magazine GQ were it was printed.

The author, American investigative journalist Scott Anderson, alleges Russian security forces, not Chechen terrorists, bombed apartment buildings in several cities 10 years ago to frighten and then rally people behind Mr. Putin's promise to keep the country safe against terrorists.

Mr. Putin was still relatively unknown at the time. An independent translation of the article, titled Vladimir Putin's Dark Rise to Power, has appeared on the Internet. Russian officials have previously denied similar allegations.

President Medvedev says in his article that modern information technologies offer unprecedented opportunity to develop political freedoms such as freedom of speech and assembly, even if the ruling class resents the transparency that comes with such liberties.

Russian human rights advocates, however, accuse the Kremlin leader of hypocrisy. They point to continued bureaucratic harassment and outright murder of investigative journalists who criticize powerful Russian officials. Activists also consider GQ's refusal to distribute its controversial article in Russia as a form of self-censorship aimed at protecting corporate profits against possible reprisals.

Yevgeniy Khlov is information director of the For Human Rights organization in Moscow.

Unfortunately, says Khlov, it must be said that the West during the rule of Stalin, Brezhnev and now Putin protects its interests by submitting to the rules of the game set by totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, not only in Russia, but also in Africa, Latin America, and Asia.

GQ's Moscow office declined VOA's request for a comment on Khlov's criticism. Magazine representatives said earlier that Anderson's allegations were old news in Russia and did not warrant further attention.

Political analyst Masha Lipman of the Moscow Carnegie Center says the decision to limit distribution of the GQ article made an official Russian argument against a free press easier.

"The Russian government ... Russian officials are saying that things may not be ideal in Russia with press freedom, but they are not ideal elsewhere either," said Lipman. "And if the management of a publication may actually limit the distribution of a sensitive article in other countries, I think that it portrays them as pragmatic, maybe cynical, but certainly not as proponents of press freedom."

The Secretary of the Russian Union of Journalists, Nadezhda Azhgikhina told VOA members of the organization have hopes President Medvedev will expand media freedoms in Russia.

Azhgikhina says there are already a fair number of hard-hitting investigative publications which feature very interesting material. She says there are also independent regional television stations, which stand out amid the monotony of national state channels. She notes that unfortunately officials do not act sufficiently on the information presented.

President Medvedev's article recognizes the need to develop and exchange information in Russia and provides the Kremlin email address for citizens to share ideas about solving the country's problems. But Yevgeniy Khlov says individual e-mails to the Kremlin represent the illusion of a discussion or choice. He characterizes the failure of President Medvedev to debate his opponents in last year's presidential election as a scandal, and calls for a competitive public exchange of ideas between officials and members of the opposition.

Khlov says the fundamental issues of domestic and foreign policy in Russia are not debated; those who oppose the official point of view are not allowed to speak, to develop their positions or participate in a discussion. The activist says that realistically, there is no freedom of speech in Russia.

Nadezhda Azhgikhina of the Russian Journalist's Union says she does not have enough information to pass judgment on GQ's decision to publish or not publish an article highly critical of Prime Minister Putin. But she says the more discussions there are about press freedom in Russia; the sooner the country can experience a genuine social dialogue.