US Questions Media Freedom In Russia

By Jim Burns | July 7, 2008 | 8:08 PM EDT

( - The arrest of a Russian journalist in Moscow this week happened just hours after his radio station and magazine interviewed Rep. Christopher Cox, a California Republican who was in Russia as a member of a House advisory group on Russia.

The Russian prosecutor-general's office said Vladimir Gusinsky was arrested on charges of stealing state property valued at $10 million. He remains in a Moscow jail.

Rep. Cox was interviewed Tuesday in the studios of Gusinsky's Ekho Moskvy radio station. (That's the same studio in which President Clinton was interviewed just a week earlier.)

Cox said he finds it particularly troubling that Gusinsky was arrested moments after Cox left the studio, after a live interview. "Coming on the heels of the arrest of journalist Andrei Babitsky for his Chechnya reporting, this latest incident requires President Putin personally to defend press freedom in Russia," Cox said.

Cox said, "Because I have been able to personally avail myself of these freedoms in Moscow, I feel a responsibility to stand up for those who may be punished for broadcasting my views."

Gusinsky's publications have frequently criticized the policies of both the Kremlin and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Speaking to reporters during a visit to Spain, Putin said Gusinsky's detention came as a surprise to him and he would look into the situation immediately.

The arrest also generated reaction at the White House, where spokesman Joe Lockhart said at a news briefing, "We are quite concerned about some of the steps taken against the free media."

The National Press Club (NPC) in Washington called Gusinsky's arrest a "very troubling incident."

"While the facts are still unclear, there seems to be an indication that the new Russian leaders under President Vladimir Putin are moving to shut down a private news organization that has been critical of their government.

"Independence of a free press is one of the most cherished freedoms of any democracy," said Richard Ryan, senior correspondent of The Detroit News and vice president of the National Press Club. "Any efforts to close down or control press freedom is a setback to the advance of democratic reforms in Russia."