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Radio Liberty Loses a Warranty

Russia: Putin rescinds a decree ensuring that the U.S.-funded station, founded to counter communism, can function in the country. Activists express worry.


MOSCOW — President Vladimir V. Putin on Friday unexpectedly revoked a decade-old decree guaranteeing U.S.-funded Radio Liberty the right to operate in Russia.

The move followed months of Kremlin hints and complaints that the station was on thin ice with authorities due to its coverage of the war in the separatist republic of Chechnya and its recent launch of a Chechen-language service.

But it was not clear what the decision by Putin would mean in practice or whether the revocation was an opening gambit in a longer-range plan to pressure the station or actually evict it from Russia.

The Kremlin said the new decree was aimed simply at putting Radio Liberty on the same legal footing as other foreign news organizations in Russia and had nothing to do with its editorial policies.

However, an anonymous Kremlin official was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying that Radio Liberty's news coverage has become biased and selective in recent years and has been particularly "slanted" in its broadcasts to Ukraine and Chechnya.

Human rights activists immediately saw a political message.

"The president would not have signed a separate decree if it had involved only economic and business issues," Sergei Kovalyov, a deputy in the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, told Interfax.

Part of the U.S. strategy to contain communism, Radio Liberty and its sister station, Radio Free Europe, broadcast into Russia and the Soviet bloc throughout the Cold War, providing news, views and analysis from the West. The Soviet Union and its satellites spent large sums trying to jam the programs, but without great success.

"We find it hard to understand what implications President Putin's decree will have for the station's work in Russia," said Andrei Shary, editor in chief of the Radio Liberty Moscow bureau.

Shary said he had been told by Foreign Ministry officials, who oversee foreign journalists in Moscow, that as far as the ministry was concerned, "the decree would not result in any negative consequences."

According to those officials, he said, Radio Liberty retains its status as a foreign mass medium working legally in Russia. But he also noted that the new decree came not from the Foreign Ministry or Mass Communications Ministry but directly from the president's office.

Post-Communist Russia's first president, Boris N. Yeltsin, signed a decree in August 1991 allowing Radio Liberty to open its Moscow bureau. At the time, he cited the station's service to the cause of democracy in Russia over the years.

A Russian reporter for Radio Liberty, Andrei Babitsky, was detained by Russian forces in Chechnya in January 2000 and, in a purported prisoner swap, was turned over to Chechen rebels. Babitsky resurfaced later and said his abduction had been orchestrated by security services to punish him for his critical reporting in the republic.

Shary pledged that the station would not submit to pressure.

"This is not the first and not the last time our station has been subject to criticism. However, our stance on all issues of principal importance, including the ones of human rights and the Chechen war, is widely known. And we are not going to change it," he said.

"We will stick to our guns because we think it is necessary to terminate hostilities in Chechnya, to begin the process of negotiations and to stop all human rights violations there. This is the groundwork of our world outlook, and it will remain immutable."

According to the station, Radio Liberty typically attracts between 2% and 4% of the daily radio audience in Russia.


Alexei V. Kuznetsov of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.

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