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Chechnya Hits Press Freedom

Russia remained in the bottom fifth of an annual press freedom index compiled by Reporters Without Borders, as the organization on Friday warned of new attempts by the Kremlin to control foreign as well as domestic perceptions of the country.

The 2005 ranking, released Thursday, placed Russia 138th out of 167 countries surveyed, with No. 167, North Korea, being the least free for the fourth year running. Russia's position improved slightly from its ranking of 140th in 2004 and 148th in 2003.

"The overall situation is the same -- it remains quite bad," said RWB European director Pascale Bonnamour by telephone on Friday from Paris.

Bonnamour cited the Foreign Ministry's decision not to renew ABC News' accreditation, what she called a continuing "black hole" in coverage of Chechnya and an $11 million fine levied on Kommersant after a libel lawsuit by Alfa Bank as troubling signs.

Bonnamour also took issue with the creation of Russia Today, a 24-hour English-language satellite news channel funded by the Kremlin.

The channel "is a new strategy for the government not only to control internal media ... but to have more control on the image of Russia for a foreign audience," she said. Bonnamour added that she was "very astonished" by the speed with which the channel was set up and the amount of money devoted to it.

"It shows the will of the government to control its image abroad," Bonnamour said.

The channel was announced in June and is expected to begin broadcasting before the end of the year. It has said its budget for this year is $30 million.

Yelena Zelinskaya, vice president of Media-Soyuz, a pro-Kremlin journalists' association, called RWB's concerns about Russia Today "understandable," but said, "I wouldn't start from a presumption of guilt. In my view, every new channel helps offer a wider range of choices." As to the ranking, Zelinskaya said it would be fairer to issue separate comparisons for Western democracies and former Soviet countries.

Ukraine came in 112th place, an improvement of 26 places over 2004, while Belarus placed 152nd, a fall of eight places on last year. RWB referred to Belarussian Presdent Alexander Lukashenko and President Vladimir Putin as "predators of press freedom."

The Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania placed 11th, joint 16th and joint 21st respectively.

Several Western democracies fell in the ranking. Canada and France slipped a few places, while the United States dropped more than 20 spots to 44th, largely due to the jailing of New York Times reporter Judith Miller.

Igor Yakovenko, head of the Russian Union of Journalists, said that Russia's position "corresponds with reality, unfortunately."

"How can you talk about any kind of press freedom when we have a government monopoly on practically all television, where it is acceptable to fire journalists and replace them with government PR?" he said, Interfax reported.

Bonnamour said the index, which is based on surveys of journalists and human rights activists worldwide, should show Russia "that the international community is paying attention. For a democracy, it's impossible to maintain such a media landscape."

(The Moscow Times 24.x.05)

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