Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kremlin Scores Strategic Victory in Chechnya - Over the Media

The Russian authorities use the kidnap threat to discourage reporters from attempting to travel to Chechnya, and those who dare to try are being stopped at the border. The result is a news blackout that benefits only the Kremlin.
By Andrei Zolotov

In marked contrast to the way it covered the last Chechen conflict in 1994-6 when it played an important role in stopping the disastrous war, the Russian media largely appears to be following the official Kremlin line which is promoting the current war as a straight forward fight against "terrorists".


At the same time, Russian journalists are quick to accuse Western media groups of their own pro-Chechen bias. However, a talk show on media coverage of the conflict, broadcast October 26 by the Moscow-based commercial station NTV, raised some concerns about whether the lack of free access to the war zone meant that no one could freely report the facts, as opposed to just disseminating propaganda for the fighting sides.


Participants noted that while Russian journalists largely reported from Russian military positions and tended to downplay civilian casualties, Western reports centered on the destruction of Chechen villages and the suffering of the civilian population.


The difference in news values between the two media camps was most recently illustrated by the attack on the Red Cross convoy late last month, which left 27 civilians dead. While the bombing was reported in most of the Western media, it was largely ignored by the Russians with only NTV television and Echo Moskvy radio station reporting the attack. Both are part of Vladimir Gusinsky's Media-MOST holding empire.


The range of opinions carried in the print media on important political issues is usually far wider than that to be found on television. The reasons are simple: the latter's news policies are strongly influenced by either the government or the financial magnates controlling them. But this has not been the case with the coverage of the latest Chechen crisis.


With the notable exception of the daily Vremya-MN daily newspaper and, to a lesser extent, the daily Izvestia, major newspapers appear unwilling to tell their readers anything about the nearly 200,000 refugees who fled Chechnya for neighboring Ingushetia in recent months, or about the destruction of Chechen towns and villages by the "precise" airstrikes of the Russian military.


The two papers were the only Russian dailies to report on the October 21 bombing of the market place in Grozny. They explained that a missile is likely to have strayed away from its target: the headquarters where warlords Shamil Basayev and Khattab held a meeting with other Chechen commanders.


Another notable exception is the weekly Novaya Gazeta whose editorial policy shows a strong slant against the war.


Part of the problem with the coverage is access to information. Scores of reporters were kidnapped in Chechnya after the 1994-96 campaign ended in total lawlessness for the embattled area.


With such dangers in mind, editors are reluctant to send correspondents to Chechnya and reporters are equally reluctant to go. The few, mostly foreign reporters working on the ground, have gone in under the armed escort of "trusted" gunmen or on the official trip organised by Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov in October.


The other international journalists in the region are largely working out of Ingushetia, from, where they have been focusing on the huge refugee crisis on both sides of the border since the Russian authorities closed it at the end of October and only make occasional promises to re-open a "corridor" for reporters and refugees alike.


Russian media reports on the war have been making heavy use of information from the Rosinformcentre (http://www.infocentre.ru) a government PR office set up in Moscow, or from the military press centre in based in Mozdok, where the army headquarters for the Northern Caucasus are located. Journalists told IWPR that the centre instructs television cameramen "to avoid" shoot dirty-faced Russian soldiers or destroyed houses.


Valery Yakov, who works for the daily Novye Izvestia, was one of the first Russian reporters to write articles criticising the conduct of federal troops during the 1994-96 war. He said in an interview that both the


Russian press and the Chechen fighters bear responsibility for the Escalation of the current conflict. According to Yakov, "through our passivity and through the kidnappings carried out by some Chechens, we are playing into the hands of the PR centres run by Russia's security services. Ultimately, this helps the authorities escalate this operation."


Referring to a recent - and little reported - meeting between Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and the editors of major media outlets, Yakov also said he suspects that the government is trying to exerted some pressure on editors.


According to Andrei Piontkovsky, director of the Moscow-based Centre for Strategic Studies, Russian media coverage of the Chechen campaign is "absolutely irresponsible".


Media executives and generals appear to be "united in wanting revenge" against Chechnya, he says. For the military, it is revenge for the humiliation of 1994-96. For the media, says Piontkovsky, it seems more a case of revenge for the spate of journalist kidnappings after the previous campaign, coupled with the "fear of seeming anti-patriotic" in pre-electoral times. He added that the widespread anti-Chechen mood among ordinary Russians also seems to play an important role.


The media here easily bought the government claim that Chechen "terrorists" stood behind the September apartment bombings in Russian cities, in which some 300 people were killed - even though no hard evidence has been forthcoming.


Piontkovsky adds that the privately-owned and well regarded NTV channel which was seen to be on the Chechen side during the 1994-6 campaign, was now rivaling the output of the state controlled RTR and the semi-government owned ORT with its hardline coverage.


To be fair however, NTV has been showing Chechen refugees inside Ingushetia - a story all but ignored by the other main stations. And the studio discussion of October 26 on Russian and Western coverage of Chechnya was a welcome initiative. Journalists from East and West joined the show, which was chaired by the station's top anchor Yevgeni Kiselyov.


Despite claims by many in the audience, that Western reporters were "saboteurs" and guilty of "anti-Russian" bias, a studio poll of the audience at the end of the programme actually found that 52 per cent maintained Russian coverage of the conflict to be "unsatisfactory."


Much of the discussion during the broadcast focused on whether interviews with Chechen warlords Shamil Basayev and Khattab could be reported, or whether Chechen fighters should or should not be called "terrorists."


NTV's Yelena Masyuk, who was the channel's top Chechnya correspondent during the 1994-96 conflict, and who spent three months in Chechen captivity after the end of hostilities, said journalists should show both sides. However, she added that the behavior displayed by Chechen fighters makes that hard. "It is up to viewers to draw their conclusions," she said. "But I drew my own conclusions [when I was held hostage,] she added.


For their part, Western reporters on the show rejected accusations of biased coverage and complained about lack of access to Russian military positions to report on the Russian side of the conflict.


In a separate interview, Dmitry Babich, the foreign desk editor of the liberal Moscow News weekly, argued that, by encouraging Western reporters to travel to Chechnya, president Maskhadov's government is demonstrating its "cynicism". "For three years, Chechen leaders did not need reporters to show their clans' infighting," Babich said. "Now they need them again." He added that some Western journalists were 'guilty' of portraying Chechen leaders Basayev and Khattab as 'heroes'.


The whereabouts of at least one Russian reporter in Chechnya are unknown. Moscow News correspondent Dmitry Balburov has not contacted his editors since Oct. 4 - suggesting he has been taken hostage.


Russian authorities themselves appear to be using evidence of kidnappings as a way to discourage reporters from attempting to travel to Chechnya. On October 31, NTV screened a video showing an unshaven man standing in a dark room and speaking French. Russia's security service, FSB, claim that gunmen had seized the man, identified as French photographer Brice Latieu, as he tried to enter Chechnya.


News agencies quoted an FSB spokesman as saying that the tape, on which Latieu complained of being kept in a cold cellar, beaten regularly and "treated like a dog", had been made by his captors, who were demanding an undisclosed ransom for his release.


Without elaborating, the officer said the video had found its way to the FSB and went on to say it was being released "in order to make Russian and foreign journalists more cautious when they go to the North Caucasus".


Reporters in the Caucasus say there are "rumours" in Ingushetia concerning a kidnapped French photographer. Russian authorities recently released a London Times reporter, Anthony Loyd, and a New York-based freelance photographer, Tyler Hicks who were arrested last week for alleged visa and accreditation violations near the Chechen-Ingush border.


Thomas Seifert, foreign editor of the Austrian magazine News, tried in late October to travel to Chechnya but was turned back by Russian troops stationed near the border. He said Russian authorities complain about Western "biased" media coverage, but should do a better job providing access for Western journalists to the conflict area. However, Seifert equally advised the Chechen side to rethink its media policy.


Andrei Zolotov Jr. covers media issues for The Moscow Times.