- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 1, 2000

In his attempt to exhibit a bit of Glasnost on Monday, acting President Vladimir Putin unwittingly proved he wields autocratic-type power in Russia. Just hours after Mr. Putin said Radio Free Europe reporter Andrei Babitsky should be freed from detention in Dagestan, the journalist was promptly flown back to his home in Moscow and released. It also indicates that authorities lacked a credible reason for originally jailing the journalist in January. In a rather unexpected twist, Mr. Babitsky's detention has also brought to light a smaller-scale attempt in the United States to use the bully pulpit's authority to muzzle the media.

The Kremlin's statements regarding Mr. Babitsky have been tellingly inconsistent and his rights under Russian and international law have been repeatedly violated. On Jan. 16, according to Radio Free Europe, Mr. Babitsky was detained by Russian officials. But Mr. Putin's spokesperson Sergei Yastrzhembsky said on Jan. 26 that Mr. Babitsky "left Grozny then disappeared." Two days later, Russian Federation Interior Ministry spokesperson Oleg Aksyonov finally said that Mr. Babitsky had been arrested on Jan. 23 for lacking proper accreditation. The reporter was also accused of colluding with Chechen terrorist.

On Feb. 3, Mr. Putin's spokesperson said that Russian officials had exchanged Mr. Babitsky for three Russian prisoners of war, giving him over to Chechen rebels. This "exchange" was in violation of the Geneva Conventions and its conditions remain quite murky. Russian authorities haven't allowed Mr. Babitsky's lawyers to review the materials in the criminal case against him and prosecutors have denied his right to legal counsel. On Feb. 27, the reporter was arrested once again on charges of carrying a falsified passport, which Mr. Babitsky has said was forced upon him.

Meanwhile in Washington, an amazing twist events took place. Shortly after Mr. Putin decided to free Mr. Babitsky, State Department spokesman Jamie Rubin said at a daily briefing that the Babitsky case "has been a top priority for the State Department and for this administration, in dealing with Russia." He added, "And let me say the suggestion by some, including Tom Dine at Radio Liberty, about what we have and haven't done is extremely off-base and doesn't bode well for the credibility and accuracy of Mr. Dine's statements. From the moment that this case has come up, we have acted with dispatch at the appropriate level, worked closely with Radio Liberty officials, who actually were informed about the case, unlike Mr. Dine."

Mr. Rubin's smear of Mr. Dine, the president of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, is appalling. Mr. Dine, who was appointed by this administration, has been working overtime to get his reporter back as rightly he should. The editorial page on Monday called the State Department for more information regarding Mr. Rubin's charge, but the calls had not been returned as this page closed. Presumably, Mr. Dine's tone wasn't positive enough for the State Department. Considering the White House's praise of Mr. Putin in the face of Mr. Babitsky detention, a little skepticism regarding the administration's efforts to have the reporter freed wouldn't be "off base."

As Mr. Rubin said during his briefing, Mr. Babitsky's detention was "clearly an extremely disturbing case of trying to crack down on independent media." The Putin administration's treatment of Mr. Babitsky is a frightening harbinger for Russia's future press freedoms. By U.S. standards, however, Mr. Rubin's use of the bully pulpit to rebuke a member of the press is disturbing on another level.

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