THE RUSSIAN government has pitched what can only be described as a diplomatic temper tantrum in response to an interview with a notorious Chechen warlord broadcast last month on ABC-TV's "Nightline." ABC News's Moscow bureau has been, in effect, blacklisted, and the Russian foreign ministry announced that accreditations for the network's 11-member staff there will not be renewed as they expire, meaning staffers will be officially barred from working as journalists in the country.
The dyspeptic reaction is in keeping with the Putin government's increasing intolerance for dissent, especially where Russia's brutal, decade-long war in Chechnya is concerned. When this government is faced with any critical message, its instinctive reaction is to bully and intimidate the messenger. It was especially telling that the Kremlin's first impulse after the program aired was to summon the top U.S. diplomat in Moscow to lodge an official protest, as if the Bush administration exercised control over broadcast decisions by U.S. media. Sorry, guys, that's not the way it works here.
No doubt, the subject of the "Nightline" interview, Shamil Basayev, meets any definition of a terrorist. He was the putative mastermind or on-the-scene commander of Chechen rebel raids on a Russian school last year (320 dead, about half of them children); a Moscow theater in 2002 (129 dead); and a Russian maternity hospital in 1995 (120 dead). He has also taken responsibility for downing two Russian civilian airliners last year (90 dead) and suicide bombings in 2003 in Russia's capital (58 dead). Mr. Basayev -- cold-blooded, amoral, intoxicated with his self-image as the avenger of an oppressed people -- is awash in innocent blood. He has a $10 million bounty on his head. He is also a legitimate subject for journalistic inquiry. As "Nightline" host Ted Koppel rightly pointed out on the air: "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."
Unfortunately, that underpinning of democratic civil society is lost on President Vladimir Putin's Kremlin, which wears blinders on all matters related to Chechnya. Independent human rights groups, European governments and the U.S. State Department, which considers Mr. Basayev a terrorist, have all condemned Russia's own atrocities in the breakaway republic, where tens or hundreds of thousands of Chechen civilians have been slaughtered at the hands of Russian forces since 1995. Russia has rejected or ignored those condemnations; at the same time, it has harassed, hassled and made life impossible for journalists who have tried to do independent reporting in Chechnya.
Prominent among those journalists is Andrei Babitsky, who did the "Nightline" interview with Basayev. Mr. Babitsky, a Russian citizen who has worked extensively, and courageously, in Chechnya, is employed by the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty; he apparently offered the Basayev interview to "Nightline" while on leave from his regular job. Russian lawmakers have threatened to have Mr. Babitsky brought up on charges of collaborating with a terrorist, and the Russian foreign ministry has lashed out at him, suggesting it will complain to his American employers. They should stand behind Mr. Babitsky, just as ABC has stood behind its right to broadcast the news as it sees fit. To buckle under Moscow's pressure would be to reward intimidation.