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Wednesday, 14 June, 2000, 12:05 GMT 13:05 UK
Analysis: Is the Kremlin against free speech?
NTV puppet show
NTV's satirical puppet show, Kukly, is disliked in the Kremlin
By BBC News Online's Stephen Mulvey

"Criticise the authorities - and go to jail," says the headline in the Sevodnya newspaper.

The newspaper's proprietor, Vladimir Gusinsky, head of the Media-Most group, has been charged with embezzlement.

The first political prisoner has appeared in the era of Vladimir Putin

Media-Most general director, Jan Zamani
Apart from Sevodnya, Media Most's holdings include Russia's largest independent television station, NTV, the weekly Itogi and the radio station Ekho Mosvky.

All of them stand out from the general run of Russian media outlets, because of their refusal to show loyalty to the Kremlin.

Political prisoner

Sevodnya states bluntly: "There is one reason for the detention - the independence of Media-Most outlets and their critical stance towards the authorities."

Mr Gusinsky
Vladimir Gusinsky: may be held 10 days without charge
Media-Most's general director, Jan Zamani, commented: "The first political prisoner has appeared in the era of Vladimir Putin."

This view is widely shared in the Russian media, and in Moscow political and business circles.

In the United States, White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said: "We are going to want to take a look at this and understand the details, but we are quite concerned about some of the steps that have been taken against the free media."

President Bill Clinton demonstrated his sympathy for the embattled independent media during his visit to Moscow earlier this month, when he favoured Echo Moskvy with an interview, but not Russian state radio or television.

For Russian liberals, a key question is the extent to which President Vladimir Putin is driving the build-up of pressure against Media-Most.

Putin's surprise

This includes financial pressure from creditors and shareholders, verbal attacks from officials and state media, and a commando raid last month on Media-Most properties.

If there is a political aspect to this case I am unaware of it

Vladimir Putin
Some liberals fear Mr Putin's vision of a strengthened Russian state, founded on a "dictatorship of the law", leaves no room for media outlets that stray off-message.

Alarming proposals from a pro-presidential think-tank to create a Kremlin directorate charged with "controlling the political process" - including manipulating the media, and smearing potential opponents - have been widely leaked to the press.

Mr Putin professed surprise at the news of Mr Gusinsky's arrest, which reached him in Madrid, and described it as a "dubious present".

While he may not have known in advance that the arrest would take place this week, it is hard to believe - after the uproar caused by the May raid - that the Kremlin has not discussed with prosecutors the thrust of their investigations into Media-Most, and the likely outcome.

Embezzlement probe

The news does, however, have at least one genuinely unwelcome side-effect for Mr Putin - concerns about free speech in Russia have now suddenly become a major theme of his visit to Spain and Germany.

Butyrka prison
The 18th Century Butyrka prison where Mr Gusinsky is held
Officials gave wildly conflicting explanations for last month's raid on Media-Most, which was later ruled illegal by a Moscow district court.

This time Mr Gusinsky was reportedly summoned for questioning in connection with a minor firearms offence - then arrested as part of a two-year-old investigation into an alleged case of embezzlement.

In what some observers take as a sign of persecution, he was not bailed, and was arrested under an article of the criminal code that allows 10 days arrest without charge, rather than the usual 48 hours.

As one of Mr Gusinsky's rivals, the tycoon Boris Berezovsky, remarked in his comments on the arrest, there is no Russian businessman who has not violated the law in one way or another over the last few years.

Under the premiership of Yevgeny Primakov it was Mr Berezovsky who was temporarily targeted by prosecutors, now it is Mr Gusinsky's turn.

Mr Putin's determination to make Russian business cleaner and fairer has been widely welcomed in Russia and beyond, and it may be that both men deserve to be investigated and tried.

However the timing of the cases against first Mr Berezovsky, and now Mr Gusinsky, suggests that politics and the law in Russia are still closely intertwined.

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See also:

12 May 00 | Europe
Media group to sue KGB
13 Jun 00 | Europe
Russian media mogul arrested
05 Jun 00 | Media reports
Kremlin pulls strings on TV puppets
28 Mar 00 | Business
Russia's new oligarchs
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