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The BBC's Robert Parsons in Moscow
"Two former Russian prime ministers have lent their considerable weight to the chorus of condemnation"
 real 28k

Friday, 12 May, 2000, 14:38 GMT 15:38 UK
Media group to sue KGB
The raid could damage President Putin's image
By BBC News Online's Stephen Mulvey

The Russian media group raided on Thursday by masked commandos has said it is taking legal action against the Federal Security Service (FSB) - the successor of the KGB.

The group's NTV television station - Russia's largest private broadcaster - said the court actions were intended to defend "the honour, dignity and business reputation of company staff", some of whom were accused of illegal surveillance activities.

The president is firmly convinced that freedom of speech and freedom of the media are immutable values

Kremlin statement
Armed security forces stormed two addresses in Moscow where the Media-MOST group companies have offices, detaining journalists for several hours, and seizing documents and electronic equipment.

The company described the raid as an attempt at political intimidation, and published a letter on Friday asking President Vladimir Putin to prevent officials taking revenge on Media-MOST for probing corruption in high places.

Liberals alarmed

The Kremlin responded on Friday with a statement that Mr Putin supported freedom of speech, but adding that no-one should try to blackmail the authorities in their execution of the law.

Vladimir Gusinsky
Media-MOST chairman Vladimir Gusinsky flew back from Israel on news of the raid
"The president is firmly convinced that freedom of speech and freedom of the media are immutable values," the statement said.

"The relationship to [the media] does not depend on the position of one or another outlet, or whether its position is liked or disliked by the authorities."

Media-MOST's holdings in television, radio and the press are more critical of the Kremlin than any of Russia's other mass-audience media outlets.

They have been critical of Russia's conduct of the war in Chechnya, sided with anti-Kremlin candidates in December's parliamentary elections, and have raised establishment hackles with biting political satire, such as the "Kukly" puppet show on NTV television.

Russian liberals and a number of Russian newspapers joined forces to deplore the raid on Media-MOST as a dangerous precedent that could signal a wave of restrictions on media freedom.

Friday's issue of the Media-MOST group's Sevodnya newspaper asked if "hounding of the media" was what Mr Putin meant by his oft-repeated promise to introduce a "dictatorship of the law".

Corruption probe

The newspaper said it had evidence that the raid was authorised by a deputy prosecutor general, and overseen by a deputy director of the FSB, both of whom it has been investigating in connection with articles on official corruption.

Somebody is doing Putin a bad service

Former Finance Minister, Boris Fyodorov
Sevodnya journalists questioned how to reconcile explanations from the authorities that, firstly, the search was connected with alleged illegal surveillance by Media-MOST security staff and, secondly, that it stemmed from a two-year-old investigation into an employee of the Finance Ministry.

The FSB said it had seized eavesdropping equipment during the raid, but a Media-MOST spokesman said it was a standard, commercially-available telephone switchboard.

Sevodnya recalled how the raid was a carbon copy of an assault on the Media-MOST headquarters in 1994, undertaken by President Boris Yeltsin's notorious chief bodyguard, Nikolai Korzhakov, to punish the group for its support for Moscow Mayor, Yuri Luzhkov.

Political control

The latest attack on Media-MOST comes in the wake of publications by a leading Russian newspaper of documents advocating the creation of a Kremlin directorate charged with "controlling the political process" in Russia.

The proposal, which apparently originated in a pro-Putin think-tank, envisages that the directorate would use FSB talent to carry out a range of dirty tricks to control political parties, regional leaders, and the media.

Some commentators have noted, however, that heavy-handed attacks like the raid on Media-MOST have the potential to do enormous harm to Mr Putin's reputation - as did the detention of the Radio Liberty journalist, Andrei Babitsky, and his handover to Chechen rebels in a hostage exchange earlier this year.

"Somebody is doing Putin a bad service," said former Finance Minister, Boris Fyodorov.

Sevodnya noted, however, that Mr Putin could still use the episode to his advantage if he had the courage to criticise his friends in the security services, and speak out in favour of media freedom.

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See also:

11 May 00 | Media reports
Media stunned by raid
13 Dec 99 | Europe
Dirty tricks in Duma campaign
07 May 00 | Europe
Putin aims to unite Russia
28 Mar 00 | Business
Russia's new oligarchs
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