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

The Russian Media Turns

Russian media are rapidly souring on the Chechen campaign, while the government retains tight controls on information leaking out of the embattled republic.
By Lev Lurie

It was largely public opinion which forced Moscow to abandon its military campaign in Chechnya in 1996. And this wave of national disapproval was largely unleashed by the Russian media, by then unanimous in its condemnation of the war. Yelena Masyuk's NTV reports became classics of their genre while the reactionary Alexander Nevzorov (ORT) was dismissed as a dangerous fanatic.


In 1999, however, the media fuelled a new barrage of public outrage. Chechen fighters staged ruthless sorties into Dagestan, civilians were taken hostage in Chechnya (including the journalist Masyuk) and 300 people died in terrorist bomb attacks in Moscow and Volgodonsk. The nation was consumed by a thirst for revenge - aggravated by the failure of Russian foreign policy in the Balkans.


Political parties which had demanded then-President Boris Yeltsin's impeachment over the first Chechen conflict were suddenly baying for rebel blood, while notoriously liberal political analysts - such as Maxim Sokolov from Izvestia, Otto Latsis from Novaya Izvestia, Mikhail Leontyev from Sevodnya and Yevgeny Kiselev from NTV - were unusually vocal in their support for the new premier, Vladimir Putin, architect of the second military campaign.


Even the run-up to the Duma elections last December saw few attempts to break this united front. The majority of voters supported the policy of revenge: open criticism of the war constituted political suicide.


Meanwhile, the military authorities kept a tight lid on the information coming out of Chechnya. But there were few objections from Russian journalists who swapped horror stories of colleagues taken hostage by the rebel fighters. Sure enough, shortly after the military campaign was launched, Dmitri Baiburov of Moskovskie Novosti, was abducted by Chechens in Ingushetia and any lingering sympathies for the breakaway republic were quickly swept aside.


In the early part of the conflict, the only unblinkered reports describing the plight of Chechnya's civilian population were filed by Radio Liberty's Andrei Babitsky and Anna Politkovskaya for Novaya Gazeta, which has close affiliations with the liberal Yabloko party.


At the end of December, however, the tables were turned. The battle for Grozny degenerated into a chaotic "meat-grinder" while squads of highly mobile guerrillas blazed a trail of destruction through Shali, Argun and Gudermes. The independent television station NTV was the first to speak out against the army, slamming the "complacency" of the general staff and "its failure to learn from the mistakes of the last war".


NTV has no links to Putin, Yavlinsky or Luzhkov. Its two teams of correspondents (in Mozdok and Dagestan) refuse to be gagged by the military censors and collate both official and unofficial information, based on interviews with officers and soldiers of the Russian army as well as Chechen civilians. NTV reporters also visit field hospitals to interview wounded rebel fighters and the innocent victims of Russian terror campaigns. In Moscow, NTV anchormen have become increasingly judgmental, their scathing commentaries coming in sharp contrast to the official propaganda parroted by rivals RTR and ORT.


The printed media has also been quick to join the growing chorus of censure - even though the most influential - Itogi magazine and Kommersant Daily - did not publish over the New Year holidays. Obshchaya Gazeta (linked to Yabloko), Moskovsky Komsomlets (associated with Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov), Sevodnya and Nezavisimaya Gazeta have been loud in their criticism of Russian military strategy.


Nezavisimaya Gazeta has been drawing worrying comparisons with the 1994-96 campaign as well as publishing interviews with human rights activists hitting out at Gen. Victor Kazantsev's "second front" against Chechnya's male population. Even Izvestia and Komsomolskaya Pravda are ready to admit that the army is experiencing difficulties.


To some extent, this change of heart can be traced to new concern in Russian press circles. Political observers are beginning to realise that the lack of a realistic alternative to Vladimir Putin in the presidential race presents a real threat to the democratic process. Perhaps with this in mind, Moskovsky Komsomolets and Novaya Gazeta resurrected the spectre of September's terrorist bomb attacks, boldly commenting that there was no real evidence to link the crimes to Chechen rebels. There were even cautious suggestions that the atrocities could have been committed by Russian government agents in a bid to justify a military offensive.


Now the two newspapers' defence correspondents, Nikolai Golts and Pavel Felgingauer, have expressed serious doubts that the war in Chechnya can end in a Russian victory. These misgivings have been echoed by other newspapers, many of which have published lengthy analyses of blundering Russian policy in Chechnya over the past two centuries.


In a series of four articles which appeared in St. Petersburg's Chas Pik, Dmitri Zhvania concluded that Chechnya's bid for independence would - and should - ultimately be successful. And journalistic circles were quick to express their solidarity when Radio Liberty correspondent Andrei Babitsky had his photographs and recordings confiscated by the military authorities in Grozny.


However, the groundswell of criticism is by no means unanimous. Maxim Sokolov and Mikhail Leontyev continue to bang Putin's drum, dismissing any information coming from the Chechens as rebel propaganda. They have branded Movladi Udugov, Grozny's minister of information, a "Chechen Goebbels". Casualties among the Russian armed forces and the civilian population, they conclude, are simply the necessary cost of restoring constitutional order to Chechnya.


Unquestioning support for the war is also provided by the communist organs - Pravda and Sovetskaya Rossia - as well as the nationalist newspapers such as Zavtra.


Undoubtedly, the fullest and most objective war reportage comes from the Russian Internet - in particular, the web site of Utro and Gazeta.ru, a wholly electronic publication. Here articles written by journalists "from both sides" are complemented by translations from the international media and press releases published by Chechen information services.


Last week, Gazeta.ru correspondents toured a number of Russian military hospitals in a bid to get the truth behind official casualty figures. They reported that, in one day, 20 lightly wounded federal soldiers were brought to the Uralsky hospital by a military flight from Mozdok with another 37 flown in on the following day. Meanwhile, 62 injured servicemen from the Grozny area were transported to a hospital in the city of Samara. Federal figures for the same period totalled 39. "And we visited just two hospitals out of the vast archipelago of military hospitals across the Russian Federation," concluded the report.


Over the past weeks, Russian journalists have proved that freedom of speech is still alive in Russia - even if objective information is in short supply. In the run-up to the presidential elections, Chechnya can be expected to play an increasingly important role on the political map. For this reason, the powers-that-be will be particularly wary of bad news leaking out of the Northern Caucasus and every effort will be made to ensure that access to information is strictly controlled. This, in turn, is only likely to raise the hackles of the journalistic community at large.


Lev Lurie is a leading journalist, historian and political commentator in St. Petersburg.