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MEDIA NOT FREE, SAYS JOURNALIST

More than a decade after the introduction of democracy in Russia, the media is far from free, says journalist Grigory Pasko.

Speaking in Toronto, Canada on 21 February 2005 at an event co-sponsored by Canadian Journalists For Free Expression (CJFE), PEN Canada and Amnesty International, the visiting journalist warned that Russia under President Vladimir Putin is slipping back to the repressive days when censorship was a hallmark of Communist rule in the Soviet Union.

"You cannot really say there is of freedom of the media in Russia today," says Pasko. "There are very few newspapers that are independent of the authorities, and outside Moscow, they scarcely exist."

Pasko spent two years in solitary confinement after he blew the whistle on the Russian navy's practice of dumping nuclear waste into the Sea of Japan. He was released on parole in January 2003, mainly because of international pressure. "I received 30,000 letters in jail," he says.

According to Pasko, changes to laws in the past few years have resulted in a rollback for press freedom and democracy in Russia. These include an anti-terrorism law which severely hinders freedom of expression, a law that removes the right to hold referenda and tax laws that give the state more powers to control how non-governmental organisations receive foreign funds.

Pasko's visit comes two days before US President George W Bush arrives in Slovakia to meet with Putin. Earlier this week, Freedom House and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) wrote to Bush urging him to be tougher with Russia on its press freedom record.

CPJ expressed extreme concern about the "dramatic decline" in press freedom, citing impunity for the murder of journalists, a series of proposed legal restrictions on the press, continued persecution of journalists reporting on the war in Chechnya, and informal censorship of regional television stations that has strengthened the Kremlin's Soviet-style control over the independent media.

Freedom House urged Bush to use his 24 February meeting with Putin to publicly challenge the Russian president on his "authoritarian course" and place democracy at the centre of US policy toward Russia.

On 21 February, Bush delivered a speech in Brussels in which he urged Russia to renew a commitment to democracy and the rule of law. "We must always remind Russia that our alliance stands for a free press, a vital opposition, the sharing of power and rule of law. The United States and all European countries should place democratic reform at the heart of their dialogue with Russia," he said.

Visit:

- Toronto Star Interviews Pasko:
http://tinyurl.com/44rlb
- CJFE:
http://www.cjfe.org/eng/about/events.html#pasko
- Pasko's Ordeal: http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=4771&var_recherche=pasko
- CPJ letter to Bush: http://www.cpj.org/protests/05ltrs/Russia20feb05pl.html
- Freedom House: http://www.freedomhouse.org/media/pressrel/021805.htm
- Associated Press: http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory?id=522404

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