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Chechen Information War Escalates

Journalists investigating the scale of Russian losses in Chechnya are facing increasing intimidation from federal authorities.
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The information war in Chechnya is escalating rapidly. As mutinous elements in the press pack openly challenge Moscow's improbable casualty reports, the Russian authorities are tightening the media blockade.


Already the independent television channel NTV has been excluded from the official journalists' pool, while a growing number of war correspondents have complained of intimidation and harassment from federal security services.


Most recently, an outspoken critic of the Russian offensive, Andrei Babitsky of Radio Liberty, has been reported missing near Grozny. Colleagues fear that Babitsky has been abducted by secret service agents, although Moscow categorically denies this.


Speculation over the actual losses being suffered by the Russian army in Chechnya reached fever pitch earlier this month following claims by the Soldiers' Mothers' Committee that the real figures could be seven times higher than official statistics.


Several agencies - including the independent Military Press Service, set up by a team of ex-army officers - have since been attempting to assess the human cost of a conflict which still enjoys considerable public support across Russia.


NTV has stood at the forefront of this initiative. A January 21 broadcast featured an interview with a Russian officer who reported that dozens of federal troops had been killed in a single assault on an armoured column. The government's daily casualty figures rarely reach double figures.


NTV correspondents have also visited military hospitals across the Russian Federation, laboriously adding up the consignments of wounded servicemen flown in from the Caucasus.


The TV station's reporters were promptly barred from official press trips into Chechnya while correspondent Yuri Lipatov was accused of spreading lies. The army press centre explained that the station was "circulating information about federal losses that bore no relation whatsoever to the truth".


Other Russian journalists claim to have been victimised by the authorities. Just after New Year, Babitsky came under attack from the Rosinformcenter government press service, which accused him of pro-terrorist sympathies and causing the deaths of Russian prisoners of war while reporting from the Chechen capital. Babitsky claimed Federal Security Service (FSB) agents later seized photographs of dead Russian soldiers from his Moscow apartment.


The Radio Liberty reporter was last seen on January 15, attempting to leave the Chechen capital. His bureau chief, Vladimir Baburin, said he had received unconfirmed reports that Babitsky was being detained by federal forces in Grozny. Alexander Mikhailov, head of the Rosinformcenter, said that if Babitsky was in Russian hands a report of his arrest would have been submitted to the Russian high command.


On January 24, Pavel Gusev, editor of Moskovsky Komsomolets, said that the FSB had attempted to detain one of his reporters, Alexander Khinshtein, in a mental hospital near Moscow. Gusev believes that Khinshtein was targeted after investigating connections between the billionaire publisher Boris Berezovsky and Chechen militant groups. The correspondent is now in hiding.


Another Radio Liberty correspondent, Oleg Kusov, made an official complaint to the military authorities after he was allegedly assaulted by a group of Russian soldiers in Nazran. Kusov said an officer snatched his dicta-phone while he was interviewing Chechen refugees, then a soldier struck him with his rifle butt.


Foreign journalists have also fallen foul of the military authorities. When Reuters and The Associated Press published accounts of heavy casualties among Russian troops in Grozny's Minutka Square last December, officials accused the journalists of working for foreign intelligence services. On an earlier occasion, Petra Prohazkova, of the Czech agency Epicentrum, was refused military accreditation after filing interviews with Chechen warlords Emir Khattab and Shamil Basaev to a Prague newspaper.


On December 29, military police arrested Daniel Williams of The Washington Post, David Filipov of The Boston Globe, Marcus Warren of The Daily Telegraph, Rodrigo Fernandez of El Pais, Ricardo Ortega and Teimuraz Gabashvili of Antenna 3 in the Grozny suburb of Staraya Sunzha. They were accused of entering the Russian exclusion zone without the necessary accreditation and questioned for nine hours.


But despite the backlash, few newspapers have resisted the temptation of comparing official estimates with collated evidence. The weekly military newspaper Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie has accused both sides of wildly exaggerating their opponents' losses.


"If you count up the official number of Chechen rebels killed, you reach a figure of 10,000. Last autumn, their total forces were reckoned to number around 40,000. So why can't federal troops make any headway in Grozny or the mountains?" the paper asked.


Moscow regards this kind of reporting as little short of high treason and is devoting concerted efforts to strengthening the information blockade.


In an interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta on January 24, Vladimir Kozin, a foreign ministry advisor, called for "more decisive and concrete action in creating an information blockade in relation to those members of the Western journalists' pool who are undertaking subversive work on the territory of Chechen republic and in neighbouring subjects of the Russian Federation."


Acting President Vladimir Putin, the architect of the Chechen campaign, has enlisted the aid of Sergei Yastrzhembsky, former advisor to Boris Yeltsin, to keep the media in line. Yastrzhembsky told Kommersant Daily, "When the nation mobilises its forces to achieve some task, that imposes obligations on everyone including the media."


The announcements have provoked an outcry from press organisations across Russia. "The military have shown that access to information has been privatised by the bureaucrats," said a public statement from the Glasnost Defence Foundation (GDF), which supports freedom of expression and has been fighting hard for journalists' rights as the battle for public opinion gathers momentum.


"If press reports conflict with the official version, then the authorities simply exclude journalists from any access to information. This is a direct infringement of the Russian Federation's laws on the mass media. We are concerned that this practice has already become commonplace in Russia."


GDF director Alexei Simonov added, "The problem of obtaining information is becoming not only more complex but also dangerous."


He pointed out that 14 Russian journalists became victims of unprovoked assaults in the run-up to the parliamentary elections in December. "Independent journalists whom the authorities cannot tame are simply beaten up," said Simonov.


Meanwhile, in Chechnya, the Russians have devised a cumbersome bureaucratic system aimed at keeping journalists in the dark. First, the applicant is told to write a letter to the Ministry of Defence, with a request for the proper accreditation. Armed with this preliminary authorisation, he makes his way down to Mozdok, North Ossetia, and applies to Russian military headquarters for a second accreditation.


I fell foul of the system during a recent visit to the Caucasus. One Saturday, I duly presented myself at the press-centre for Army Group North. The soldiers gave me short shrift. "There's no one in the press office today," they said. "It's a day-off. Come back on Monday!"


I had to leave wondering about the concept of a day off in war-time. Monday, however, was just as unproductive - without authorisation from Moscow, no requests for accreditation could be processed. So I just headed for the Chechen border, hoping to bluff my way through. But the Russian troops posted at the checkpoint refuse to admit anyone without accreditation.


"We could let you past, but how are you going to get back?" they say. "What if they take you for a rebel fighter?"


If, in the first month of the war, it was possible to slip into Chechnya without accreditation, now, with the onset of massed military operations, it's practically impossible.


On my return to Vladikavkaz, one of the officers who had been fighting in Chechnya actually said to me, "I hate you journalists. You're traitors! It's you who killed my lads!"


"How can a journalist kill someone?" I objected.


"You showed them our positions on the television," he said. "Immediately afterwards, the 'spirits' [the Russian name for the fighters] opened fire on us and killed seven of my lads straight off. One of them had his head cut off."


I attempted to find out exactly where all this had happened, but he refused to elaborate. He just went on cursing the journalistic community as a whole.


The Russian information blockade forces many journalists - especially those from abroad - to resort to desperate measures. Some attempt to read between the lines on Movladi Udugov's Chechen government website. But this option is hardly failsafe - Udugov himself has few qualms about promoting rebel propaganda and local journalists have long ceased to regard him as a reliable source.


Many foreign TV companies choose to buy their footage from Chechen TV cameramen who smuggle videocassettes through the Russian military cordon. The sums of money changing hands - several thousand dollars a time - is already legendary. These deals are sealed in the Assa Hotel in Nazran, Ingushetia. Both buyers and vendors run the gauntlet of FSB personnel posted at the hotel to clamp down on this thriving trade.


High casualty rates among journalists in Chechnya have undoubtedly served to inflate the prices in recent months. Two Chechen TV cameramen, Ramzan Mezhidov with the Moscow TV Centre and Shamil Gigaev of Grozny's Nockhko were killed on the Grozny-Nazran road in late October when a Russian fighter plane strafed the car in which they were travelling. Days later, Supyan Ependiev, of the Grozny Worker, was fatally wounded during a rocket attack in Grozny.


Russian press organisations agree that the Chechen conflict may have a catastrophic effect on freedom of speech in the former Soviet Union. They fear it may even herald a gradual return to Soviet-style censorship, which saw journalists banished to mental institutions for refusing to tow the party line.


As the Glasnot Defence Foundation's Simonov comments, "Suppressing information about the consequences of military operations in Chechnya denies society the right to form its own judgements. In the final analysis, no one will take responsibility for the sheer scale and savagery of this war."


Erik Batuev is a journalist with Svet newspaper in Nazran.


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