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Putin nixes media restrictions, blasts crisis coverage

| Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2002

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin vetoed media legislation Monday that would have sharply restricted terrorism coverage, but he lashed out at the country's press, television and radio for their handing of last month's hostage crisis at a Moscow theater.

The legislation, passed by both houses of parliament, would have prohibited reports seen as hindering counter-terrorist operations and banned the broadcast or publication of rebel statements or extremist "propaganda."

Putin's decision to veto the measure ahead of next year's parliamentary elections was widely seen as an attempt to burnish his image as a defender of free speech. Critics have accused him and his government of cracking down on independent television.

"No truly democratic power can exist without publicity and openness, which are provided by the mass media," Putin said, adding that he had asked parliamentary leaders to form a commission to come up with new legislation.

But the president, who made the announcement during a Kremlin meeting with the heads of major media organizations, also took the opportunity to blast the media for what he considered irresponsible coverage of last month's Moscow theater siege.

"Television pictures from one channel a few minutes before the storming, when the movement of special forces was shown, could have led to an enormous tragedy," Putin told the assembled journalists.

He accused some media of acting irresponsibly to "boost their ratings" and make more money during the hostage crisis.

"The main weapon of terrorists is not grenades and submachine guns and bullets, but blackmail, and the best means of such blackmail is to turn a terrorist act into a public show," he said.

The hostage crisis began Oct. 23 when Chechen rebels seized a Moscow theater during the staging of a musical, taking hundreds of people captive. Three days later, Russian special forces stormed the building, killing the 41 militants.

At least 129 of the hostages also died, most of them felled by a narcotic gas used to knock out the rebels before the special forces stormed in.

During the siege, covered extensively by Russian media in frequent live reports, authorities briefly shut down a Moscow television station, accusing it of showing possible escape routes for the rebels. Officials also complained to a radio station after it broadcast a live interview with one of the hostage takers.

Shortly after the Chechen rebels took the theater, lawmakers passed the new legislation — a series of amendments to the country's existing media law — governing press coverage of "counter-terrorist operations."

Critics said the language in the amendments was too broad and could be used to shut down any news organization that irks authorities. They also complained that the restrictions could be used to further restrict coverage of the war in Chechnya, which Russian officials routinely refer to as a "counter-terrorist operation."

Last week, representatives of 30 of the country's major media organizations and the head of Putin's own human rights commission called on the president to veto the legislation. It was a rare show of unity among Moscow's press corps, bringing together Russia's two leading state-controlled television channels and their independent rivals, along with newspapers, radio stations and press freedom advocates.

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