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VLADIVOSTOK, Russia — Yury Stepanov, an editor at an independent program called Radio Lemma, was walking home at about 10:30 p.m. June 29 when he noticed a Toyota minivan blocking an alley near his home.

As he squeezed past, he says, a burly man in black stepped out of the dark and smashed him in the face.

Stepanov fell to the ground. The assailant and another thug began kicking him — in the head, the ribs, the stomach. They dragged him to the van, but he broke free and fled. He now spends his days holed up at home, nursing a concussion and three broken ribs.

The attack, along with the kidnapping of an editor’s daughter, have stunned an already cowed press in the Far Eastern region of Primorye and left some blaming local politicians who have all but silenced their opposition.

Stepanov, who says he may have been attacked because his radio coverage angered Gov. Yevgeny Nazdratenko and Vladivostok Mayor Yury Kopylov, is only one example of attacks on Radio Lemma staff. The 19-year-old daughter of editor in chief Valery Muravyov was kidnapped for a several hours and sent home with an order to tell her father to stop searching for Stepanov’s assailants. Another reporter escaped unharmed from a suspicious automobile accident.

Said Stepanov, “My friends I’ve known for many years are saying, “You should be careful, because those guys first breathe on the back of your neck, and then they start shooting.”

Nazdratadenko and Kopylov’s offices have expressly denied having anything to do with the assault or the kidnapping. The governor issued a press statement July 8 saying he had no connection with the alleged crimes.

The incidents are part of an occasional pattern of violence against reporters that stretches back to 1995. At that time, thugs kidnapped a radio reporter, strung him up in a basement and tortured him for hours after he broadcast criticism of Mayor Konstantin Tolstoshein, now Primorye’s first deputy vice governor. Tolstoshein has denied any involvement.

The recent attacks on Radio Lemma are only the tip of the iceberg in a four-year process of suffocating the press in Primorye under the Nazdratenko regime. And they are only a few examples of increasing restrictions on the regional media throughout Russia as powerful governors effect their will far from Moscow.

In Primorye, the regional administration owns the only printing press and could cut off publication of any of the city’s 29 papers. And newspapers are dependent on subsidies from the administration, which pays them to print its press releases disguised as news stories. Editors at the Vladivostok, the largest daily newspaper in the region, call the governor’s office to get permission to run controversial stories, and make changes according to the demands of the bureaucrats.

The regional administration owns a television station, and the governor’s appointee heads another government’s owned station. The governor’s daily schedule determines the region’s television news coverage. On a typical half-hour news broadcast, the governor appears four times. No excuse to put Nazdratenko’s face on the screen is ignored, even when he is doing nothing more than giving prizes to collective farm workers who win cow-inseminating contests.

Primorye’s most notorious trial involved Russian Navy Capt. Grigory Pasko, a military reporter who was accused of high treason because he reported on the dumping of liquid radioactive waste in the Sea of Japan. This trial was in a military court, theoretically outside the influence of Nazdratenko. But a former lawyer for Pasko, Karen Nersisian, has accused the governor of pushing military-intelligence agents to fabricate charges because Pasko investigated the disappearance of millions of dollars of aid from Japan. The governor’s office has said it had nothing to do with the Pasko charges.

Even the local reporters for national media are limited in their criticism of Nazdratenko. In Russia, governors serve on the federation council, the Upper House of Parliament. And Nazdratenko has influence there. “If I criticize him, I’ll hear about it from my editor,” said one journalist.

In the case of radio editor Stepanov, he had been fearful ever since he broadcast a series of reports about Vostoktransflot, a shipping firm whose managers have been under attack by the regional administration because, they say, they refused to donate $2 million to Nazdratenko’s re-election campaign. (The governor denies this, saying he is only trying to protect Russia’s fleet from foreign raiders.) A power struggle has ensued in the company, and the media allied to the governor have launched an all-out attack on Vostoktransflot Chairman Anatoly Milashevich. Stepanov, however, defied the apparent ban on interviews with Milashevich, and talked to him three times.

The next day, Stepanov’s colleague at Radio Lemma, Oleg Zhunusov, was driving in traffic when he noticed a Mazda truck accelerating behind him. The truck rammed him. He was unharmed, but his Toyota was totaled. He cannot prove the accident was deliberate, but it seemed that the trucker and the driver of the car in front knew each other.

One of the few papers to attempt objective reporting has been Zolotoi Rog, a business weekly. While hardly a crusading paper, it has striven to cover both sides of controversial issues. And deputy editor Andrei Pushkaryov says Radio Lemma reporters went out of their way to offend, he said.

“Our bureaucrats are used to forcing journalists to write what they want, and they should understand the psychology of journalists. But journalists should understand bureaucrats too. Sometimes they don’t smooth things over, and become harsh to their sources to the point of obnoxiousness.”

Zhunusov, a highly respected reporter, says he was fired this year from a previous television job on orders from Mayor Kopylov, a Nazdratenko appointee. (Kopylov’s office denies this).

Radio Lemma’s problems began when Kopylov, a Nazdratenko appointee, allegedly threatened them this spring. Kopylov ordered the station to stop interviewing his and Nazdratenko’s political foes, Zhunusov said.

“I hope that you guys are smart enough, and that no physical actions will follow,” he quoted Kopylov as saying.

Kopylov spokeswoman Olga Devyatinina said the mayor made no threats and had nothing to do with Stepanov’s beating. She found his claim of an assault “suspicious, because it happened just as federal investigators are preparing to look into charges that Yevgeny Ivanovich (Nazdratenko) controls the local media.”

But some government officials haven’t gotten with the message. According to the newspaper Utro Rossii, a regional administration spokesman, Adam Imadayev, invited editors to a critique of their coverage of Vostoktransflot.

As the paper noted, “The editors of the newspapers were urged to fire journalists who give the wrong point of view of events.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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