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Putin Criticizes Coverage but Vetoes Legislation Limiting Press

Reportage during hostage crisis spurred bill, which Kremlin probably helped pass.

November 26, 2002|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, under fire over restrictions on media freedom, sharply criticized some reporting on Moscow's recent hostage crisis Monday but vetoed legislation that would have further limited news coverage.

His move appeared to be an effort to stop a hail of criticism, not only from human rights organizations that defend media freedom, but also from pro-Kremlin media chiefs.

Although Putin vetoed the legislation, it is unlikely it could have even passed both houses of parliament without initial support from the Kremlin. Putin's move suggested that he had decided the controversy was hurting him politically more than new legislation would help him.

The new regulations would have banned the airing of terrorists' statements and outlawed reporting on technology, weapons, ammunition or explosives used in anti-terrorist operations. They were introduced in parliament after last month's crisis, in which Chechen rebels seized more than 700 hostages at a Moscow theater. The hostages were rescued by special police, but 129 of them died, most from the effects of a gas used to incapacitate the rebels.

Putin's veto followed an incident earlier this month in Brussels in which he attacked radical Islam and a journalist who questioned Russia's policy on Chechnya.

Putin on Monday called in representatives of the major Russian media outlets, from the most loyal to the most critical, to announce the veto.

He then launched a thinly veiled attack on NTV, a media group controlled by the state-dominated Gazprom company. During the hostage crisis, NTV aired a program showing hostages' relatives pleading for an end to the Chechen war and footage of special forces moving in to storm the theater.

NTV has denied accusations that it aired the storming footage live. But in his comments Putin accused a station, which he did not name, of going after ratings and profits.

"Minutes before the storming, one of the television stations showed the movement of special police squads, which could have led to terrible tragedy," he said. "It was not a mistake on the part of individual journalists. It was an attempt to push up ratings and capitalization and to make money."

NTV has been under intense Kremlin pressure since the hostage crisis. But last week, President Bush gave an exclusive interview in Washington to Savik Shuster, the NTV anchorman whose program aired the comments of distraught relatives during the crisis.

Political analyst Pavel I. Voshchanov, a columnist at the daily Tribuna, said the Kremlin had made it clear to leaders in the Russian parliament that the media had stepped out of line during the hostage crisis.

"The legislators, like good restaurant waiters, rushed to fulfill the highest order and did it in record-breaking time, overdoing the thing quite a bit and making the Kremlin look even worse, until the president personally interfered and publicly saved the Russian mass media from his own hook," Voshchanov said. "The whole thing was a pretty blunt and obvious operetta farce directed by the Kremlin."

Putin's tactic was the kind used by authoritarian regimes, Voshchanov said.

"This latest PR action with the mass media law reminds me of some weird mixture of Stalinism, Brezhnevism and the apogee of the Yeltsin rule, when Boris Yeltsin could afford to say anything he wanted and then would turn it upside down to make him look like a really democratic and wise father of his people."

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