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Russia's glasnost questioned

Former President Mikhail Gorbachev is passionately defending freedom of the press.

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Freedom in the New Russia may have a price, and it can be a high one if you dare to criticize the Kremlin. Andrei Babitsky, a correspondent of the US-funded Radio Liberty discovered that earlier this year after being seized by Russian security police in Chechnya. He disappeared for weeks, after being "traded" to a mysterious group of armed men by his captors.

Mr. Babitsky, presently under house arrest in Moscow, learned the hard way that the Russian government is often more concerned with a citizen's obedience than his constitutional rights.

Now, Vladimir Gusinsky, owner of Russia's largest independent media empire, says the Kremlin has dealt him exactly the same lesson. Arrested and held in Moscow's Butrskaya prison last June on an accusation of fraud, Mr. Gusinsky was exonerated and allowed to leave the country after promising to sell Media-Most, which includes several newspapers, a radio station, and Russia's only nonstate television network NTV, to the state-owned natural-gas giant Gazprom.

According to Segodnya, a newspaper owned by Media-Most, the deal contained a secret codicil signed by Gazprom and by government Press Minister Mikhail Lesin, which says if the agreement is broken, all parties are "freed of their obligation" to guarantee Gusinsky's physical safety. The text also implies that Gusinsky agreed not to make statements that would "discredit" state institutions.

Mr. Lesin yesterday admitted that he had signed the secret pact, but told Russian state TV he did so as a "private person," not as a state official.

"The state made a provocative proposal to Gusinsky: your freedom for your company," says Igor Dyakovsky, president of the Russian Union of Journalists. "This is a real illustration of the information policy of our government. The new doctrine means to introduce state control over the mass media."

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