More alarming, though, is the fate of Alexander Babitsky, a widely respected Russian correspondent for Radio Liberty, the independent news organization spun off from the former, U.S.-backed Radio Free Europe. Babitsky was detained by Russian troops sometime in mid-January, while trying to leave Grozny, and was accused of being part of a guerrilla unit. This was nothing unusual for journalists covering the war, who are routinely subjected to such harassment by the Russian authorities as Moscow has tried to enforce its own Pollyannaish spin on a military campaign designed for domestic political consumption. "Foreign reporters are typically detained briefly while Russian reporters are often detained at length," says TIME Moscow correspondent Andrew Meier. "Even reporters for state-owned television have been detained. This is the blunt edge of the news blockade." But Babitsky's case came to represent a new low in Moscow's contempt for the media when the Russian military announced, last Thursday, that it had turned the journalist over supposedly at his own request to Chechen guerrillas in exchange for two captured Russian soldiers.
The fact that they haven't heard from Babitsky since has prompted his wife and his colleagues to speculate over whether the alleged handover ever took place. They suspect Moscow's insistence that Russian forces were no longer responsible for Babitsky's well-being may be designed to absolve the authorities of any crime that may have been committed against the reporter. Chechen authorities have denied ever having been involved in any such swap, and a video of the alleged handover released by Russian authorities raised more questions than it answered. It's far from clear that the gruff men in black masks seen on the tape marching Babitsky away are in fact Chechens at all. And when the liberal Yabloko faction tried Wednesday to raise questions about the incident in the Duma, they found themselves blocked by a majority loyal to acting president Vladimir Putin. "Putin himself has maintained an unseemly silence throughout this affair," says Meier.
Ascertaining Babitsky's fate may require a dark journey through the scary wilds of Russia's post-communist dystopia, but even Moscow's official version is alarming. "It's impossible right now to determine what has happened to Babitsky, but if you take the Russian government at its word, they handed over a Russian journalist to a group of hooded men Moscow regards as terrorists," says TIME Moscow correspondent Andrew Meier. "That means that neither his profession as a journalist nor his Russian citizenship meant anything to the Russian state. There's no question that the intended message to all reporters covering the war is that Moscow regards journalists who don't toe the line as part of the enemy."
Babitsky would certainly not have been surprised by finding himself under arrest by Russian troops. "He's a fiercely driven correspondent willing to take great risks to get a story," says Meier. "As an unflinching witness to war, he had filed some of the hardest-hitting stuff out of Chechnya, which had 'displeased' the Russian authorities, to put it mildly. And when I met with him the night before he left for Grozny, he said he believed there was a special FSB [successor organization to the KGB] team in Ingushetia whose mission was to eliminate him."
Still, there's no certainty either way about his fate. "Each day in this story brings a confounding new turn of events," says Meier. "One day everyone denies knowing where he is; the next day everybody claims to know where he is. But the naked cynicism of the official explanation may be cause for alarm."
To be sure, the world has become a dangerous place for reporters. "The idea of journalists' being neutral actors who could pass unmolested across the battle lines has long since faded," says TIME U.N. correspondent William Dowell, who has reported from the world's hot spots since the Vietnam War. "In some cases today journalists are deliberately executed by combatants as a way of telegraphing their cruelty and the fact that they'll stop at nothing. The prisoner swap may be Putin's way of sending a message that journalists who speak out will face official harassment."
Of course an older generation of Russian reporters is quite accustomed to being treated as enemies of the state, because that was the way of the KGB. And acting president Putin, of course, is a career KGB official.