Russia considering libel suits over reporting on Litvinenko

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Sunday, December 10, 2006

Russia Today TV, Moscow's English-language satellite television channel, reported that Russian government officials are considering filing libel suits against international journalists over their reporting on the poisoning death of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko. Litvinenko was a strong critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin and shortly before he died in London from radiation poisoning in late November, Litvinenko accused Putin of ordering his assassination. Putin and other Russian officials strongly denied any prior knowledge of a plot to kill Litvinenko.

According to a report posted late Friday on the Russia Today TV web site, the Federal Agency for Press and Mass Media is gathering publications worldwide to be studied for libelous and offensive comments against Russia in their coverage of the Litvinenko's case. Russia Today TV reported that the Russian government intends to file law suits for libel against international media if there is evidence of journalistic misconduct.

In a Voice of America interview shortly before he was poisoned by a radioactive substance polonium-210, former Russian spy Litvinenko had accused Putin of ordering the murder of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya to silence her and intimidate other independent journalists. She had been killed by an unknown assailant in Moscow in early October.

Several senior Russian politicians have said that the deaths of Politkovskaya and Litvinenko were playing into the hands of Russia’s enemies and, therefore, could not have been authorized by Moscow.

The Russian government's warnings aimed at international journalists follow Putin's largely successful efforts to bring major media outlets in Russia under government control and to limit media criticism of his policies. Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based nongovernmental organization, has called Putin one of the world's top "Predators of Press Freedom."

FreeMediaOnline.org, a California-based nonprofit organization which monitors media and supports press freedom worldwide, said that the latest warnings issued by the Federal Agency for Press and Mass Media would prove a major embarrassment for Putin and for Russia if they were carried out. An article on the FreeMediaOnline.org web site claims that even if there is no direct link between the two assassinations and the Kremlin, Putin is ultimately responsible for the climate of lawlessness and suppression of free media that may have contributed to these murders.

FreeMediaOnline.org also noted that uncovering the truth about the murders of Politkovskaya and Litvinenko would be difficult because independent journalists in Russia have been either silenced or intimidated by President Putin's media advisors, government regulators, and security services.

Putin insists he is a strong supporter of democracy and press freedom. In a speech to Russian television broadcasters in late November 2006, Putin said that the development of Russian state and society would be unthinkable without independent media, without the possibility of listening to different points of view, and without television.

Putin's critics point out that he has successfully placed under the Kremlin's control all major nationwide television channels. According to FreeMediaOnline.org, journalists working for these channels no longer dare to offer any significant criticism of Mr. Putin's policies. The organization warned that restrictions on media freedom in Russia have emboldened criminal elements to engage in illegal activities.

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