Baltic countries broadcast controversial film

  • 2002-03-28
  • Timothy Jacobs

Latvia became the second Baltic country to broadcast Russian financier Boris Berezovsky's politically charged documentary film about the 1999 apartment bombings in Moscow and Volgodonsk that killed more than 300 people.

Latvia's state-run television station LTV-2, which broadcasts Russian-language shows, on March 23 aired the film "The Assassination of Russia," which alleges that it was the Russian Federal Security Service, not Chechen Islamic extremists, that planted the bombs that set off Russia's current military campaign in Chechnya.

Berezovsky has been unsuccessful thus far in getting the Russian television networks to broadcast the film, but he did succeed in getting Lithuania's state-run television network LRT to broadcast the film two weeks ago.

Latvia and Lithuania are the only two countries in the world to have run the film.

After the apartment bombings in 1999, then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, placed the blame on Chechan extremists.

Berezovsky recently told Newsweek magazine that, "Putin says the Chechens are responsible (for the bombings) but has never given any evidence. No one is in jail, nor has there been a proper investigation."

Putin later used the bombings to restart the war in Chechnya.

According to LTV program director Baldurs Apinis, there has been a lot of discussion about the film on (Russian networks) RTR and NTV, though both have decided not to broadcast the film.

Since taking office in 2000, Putin has succeeded in taking control of the last two independent stations in Russia – NTV and TV-6 – so it is unlikely that the film, which accuses the government of treasonous acts, will be broadcast by any of them.

"Many of our viewers in Latvia also watch these channels," said Apinis. "The reason that we broadcast the film was to give them the opportunity to make up their own minds about the subject so that they could discuss it intelligently. We did not broadcast the film for political reasons."

Both the Lithuanian and Latvian stations were approached with the film by Natalia Troitskaya, the Baltic representative for Berezovsky's non-profit organization the International Foundation for Civil Liberties. The stations were given the film free of charge to broadcast it whenever they chose.

According to Alex Goldfarb, the foundation's executive director, "The foundation was just acting as an intermediary between the company in Massachusetts that owns the rights to the film outside Russia and the various television stations."

Goldfarb, whose foundation in Latvia promotes the understanding of Russian culture and the integration of a distinct Russian population into the greater Latvian society, sees his organization's involvement in getting the two parties together as neither promotion for the film nor a conflict of interest for the organization that he runs, even though his boss, Berezovsky, both produced the film and heads his organization.

"I view it as an act of public service," he said.

The Russian Embassy in Riga had little to say about LTV's decision to broadcast the film.

"Our government considers the broadcasting of this film to be a matter only for Latvia. It is up to the Latvian government what they choose to show on their television stations," said an embassy spokesman.

When asked what the government's official stance toward the film was, the spokesman said that, "Our official sources will not comment on the creation of the film or the broadcasting of the film in different countries."

Although the Russian government has no official policy toward the film being broadcast abroad, it has cracked down on people distributing it inside of Russia.

Russian customs officials seized 100 copies of the movie earlier this month from Russian State Duma opposition member Yuly Rybakov, who was presented the tapes by Borezovsky himself the previous day in London.

Rybakov told reporters that he had planned to distribute the tapes to members of the Russian legislature.

A customs official at the Pulkovo Airport in St. Petersburg where the tapes were seized said Rybakov failed to pay the required duties.

According to Goldfarb, "The film has been banned in Russia for political reasons. People are being beaten up and abused in every possible way for having the courage to distribute the film and in my view this is a replay of the methods used in the former Soviet Union."

Berezovsky's claims, too, must be questioned because of an ongoing feud between Putin and himself. Berezovsky was forced to flee Russia in November 2000 under threat of arrest on charges of corruption. Since he left the country, he has been forced to give up his controlling stake in the ORT television channel.

According to the agreement made between LTV and Berezovsky's organization, the station has the right to show the film as many times as it wishes but it does not have the exclusive rights to broadcast the film in Latvia. Attempts to reach representatives from the foundation as to why they approached the Baltic countries about broadcasting the film were unsuccessful.

According to Apinis, LTV has no plans to broadcast the film again.