by Ted Lipien

FreeMediaOnline.org Free Media Online, Dublin, CA — 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. [Link] Shortly before he died in London from radiation poisoning, Mr. Litvinenko, who was a strong critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, accused him of ordering his assassination. Mr. Putin and other Russian officials strongly denied any prior knowledge of a plot to kill Mr. 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 Mr. Litvinenko had accused President 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.

No evidence has been uncovered to support any of the accusations against President Putin in these two murders. Many 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 President 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 Mr. 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 President Putin and for Russia if they were carried out. According to FreeMediaOnline.org, intimidation tactics used against domestic Russian media are not likely to be successful against international media. An article on the FreeMediaOnline.org web site  also claims that even if there is no direct link between the two assassinations and the Kremlin, Mr. Putin is ultimately responsible for the climate of lawlessness and suppression of free media that may have contributed to these murders.

According to one theory, some of the murders may have been carried out by current or former Russian security agents acting on their own without authorization from the top political leadership. Russian government officials have suggested, however, that various enemies of the Kremlin, including the Chechen rebels, may have staged these assassinations to embarrass President Putin. There is no evidence supporting either theory.

FreeMediaOnline.org noted that uncovering the truth about the murders of Ms. Politkovskaya and Mr. Litvinenko would be difficult because independent journalists in Russia have been largely silenced and intimidated by President Putin’s media advisors. President Putin insists he is a strong supporter of democracy and press freedom.

In a speech to Russian television broadcasters in late November, Mr. Putin said that TV journalists played a significant role in the successful democratic transformation of Russia in the early 1990s by helping to expand the boundaries of freedom and to bringing down barriers and dogma. Mr. Putin noted 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. [Link]

Mr. Putin’s critics point out that he has successfully placed under the Kremlin’s control all major nationwide television channels. 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 that may be found outside and within the Russian government to engage in illegal activities.

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