- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 14, 2000

The reported detention, abuse and "prisoner exchange" of Radio Liberty journalist Andrei Babitsky by Russian military authorities has raised questions about Russia's commitment to freedom of the press. Mr. Babitsky's arrest is understandably seen as an attempt to intimidate or even silence journalists who are critical of the Russian government's military campaign in Chechnya. Mr. Babitsky is now safe and back with his family in Moscow, but the charges against him are still being pursued. The challenge that this incident represents to Russia's democracy remains.

Throughout the world, a free and vibrant media is an essential component of democracy, good governance, and sustained economic growth. In Senegal, for example, non-governmental radio stations provided the most comprehensive coverage of last week's election. Journalists at the Lalok "newspaper" in East Timor are now working without pay to produce a photocopied news-sheet in Tetum, the local language. In Russia too, journalists have brought individual cases of official corruption to light, sometimes putting themselves at risk in the process. They have shown how a free press can play a critical role in Russia's growth as a stable, democratic, prosperous society.

In my visit to Moscow this month, I was impressed by the resourcefulness and tenacity of Russian journalists struggling every day to fulfill their mission. I met with independent journalists who described the challenges they face, including the absence of a clear legal and regulatory framework for media activities. The State Department's 1999 "Country Report on Human Rights Practices" reports attacks on numerous journalists in Russia, 10 of whom died. The Glasnost Defense Foundation (GDF), a non-governmental organization that tracks violations of the rights of journalists in the countries of the former Soviet Union, estimates that some 300 lawsuits and other legal actions were brought by Russian government agencies against journalists and journalistic organizations during the year, the majority of them in response to unfavorable coverage of government policy or operations.

Professional independent journalists are one of the cornerstones of Russia's democracy, and the United States strongly supports them. In January of last year, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright committed the United States to provide $10 million to support Russia's independent media. Programs supported with these and other funds have provided training for thousands of young Russian journalists and have helped support the development of hundreds of regional newspapers and television stations throughout Russia.

This is why we take matters like the Babitsky arrest so seriously and respond so strongly to them. The State Department expressed its strong concern throughout the time that Mr. Babitsky was unaccounted for, holding the Russian government responsible for his safety and well-being. We said repeatedly that treating a non-combatant as a hostage or prisoner of war was unacceptable and incompatible with Russia's international commitments and obligations. (These points were clearly heard: the Russian Foreign Ministry responded at one point by accusing State Department spokesman James P. Rubin of "information terrorism.")

Beyond our public expressions, though, Mrs. Albright raised these points repeatedly with Russian Foreign Minister Ivanov and Security Council Secretary Sergei Ivanov by phone, in writing, and in face-to-face meetings. Our embassy raised the Babitsky issue in nearly every meeting with senior Russian government officials. In Russia, I met with a host of ministerial leaders and drove home our condemnation of Mr. Babitsky's arrest and our concerns for his well-being, and also met with Mr. Babitsky's wife. Mr. Babitsky himself has expressed gratitude for the U.S. government's role in securing his safe return.

The resolution of this case is one step in a much larger process. Russia needs to develop a legal and regulatory structure that protects independent journalists and the integrity of public and private news organizations. Over the coming years the courageous people of Russia will continue the unfinished job of building a truly democratic modern society. To succeed, they need courageous journalists like Mr. Babitsky who will keep a watchful eye on elected officials and government institutions and empower the Russian people with the reliable information they need to make informed decisions about their future.

The U.S. government will continue to do everything possible to support this historic transformation.

Evelyn S. Lieberman is undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs.

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