In Wake of Georgian War, Russian Media Feel Heat

By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, September 15, 2008

MOSCOW -- At the height of the crisis over Russia's invasion of Georgia last month, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin summoned the top executives of his nation's most influential newspapers and broadcasters to a private meeting in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

The Kremlin controls much of the Russian media, and Putin occasionally meets with friendly groups of senior journalists to answer questions and guide news coverage. On Aug. 29, though, for the first time in five years, he also invited the editor in chief of Echo Moskvy, the only national radio station that routinely broadcasts opposition voices.

For several minutes, according to people who attended the session or were briefed about it, Putin berated the editor in front of his peers, criticizing Echo's coverage of the war with Georgia and reading from a dossier of transcripts to point out what he considered errors.

"I'm not interested in who said these things," one participant quoted Putin telling the editor, Alexei Venediktov. "You are responsible for everything that goes on at the radio station. I don't know who they are, but I know who you are."

The message to the 30 or so media executives at the gathering was clear: With Russia occupying parts of Georgia and locked in perhaps its most serious conflict with the West since the Cold War, they should be especially vigilant against reporting anything that the government might find objectionable.

Four months after Putin handed the presidency to his protégé Dmitry Medvedev, mildly raising expectations that the Kremlin might relax its grip on political life here, the continuing standoff with the West over Georgia has largely ended that talk and brought fears that a turn toward increased repression might be underway instead.

Prosecutors have opened a criminal investigation into whether Echo Moskvy has broadcast "extremist" speech. A leading opposition figure in the troubled Ingushetia region has been shot dead by police.

And a campaign to undermine the reputations of nongovernmental organizations seems to be picking up. In remarks to a group of foreign academics last week, Putin said Russia needed to act in Georgia because "certain nongovernmental organizations in certain republics" were using the crisis to justify separatism in the Russian part of the Northern Caucasus region.

The domestic fallout of the Georgian war can also be seen in the caution and anxiety of journalists, civic activists and others who work near the boundaries of what the Kremlin tolerates -- and who little more than a month ago were optimistic those limits might be expanding.

"When Medvedev took office, we hoped for a new thaw," said Mariana Maximovskaya, deputy editor of Ren-TV, a station that often broadcasts voices critical of the government. "But after the Georgian war, people are now very concerned about a new tightening inside the country."

Yuri Samodurov, former curator of the Andrei Sakharov Museum, an institution devoted to honoring the late Soviet dissident, said a prominent filmmaker recently backed out of a plan to produce a documentary for the museum about the Soviet era. "Before the war, she agreed to do it, but she told me she is afraid now," he said. "The situation is changing, and she felt it changing."

The museum is also being more cautious, he said. For years, a banner protesting Russia's long war in Chechnya hung outside the building. After the invasion of Georgia, Samodurov wanted to put up another tough message, but the museum decided to take down the old banner and not replace it. "It's just a bad time to do it," said Igor Veritiny, the museum's acting director. "We're trying to be careful."

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