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

Scare-mongering Film Causes Outrage

A TV journalist has been accused of letting her experiences in the hands of Chechen kidnappers cloud her professional objectivity
By Yuri Akbashev

Despite a furious outcry across the North Caucasus, Russian state TV is continuing to broadcast a controversial reportage which claims the region has become a hotbed of religious extremism.


"The Caucasian Crescent" is a serialised documentary by Yelena Masyuk, the former NTV journalist whose reports from the frontline during the first Chechen campaign incensed the Russian authorities. Masyuk hit the headlines herself in 1997 when she was kidnapped and held for ransom by a Chechen crime gang.


"The Caucasian Crescent" focuses on the rise of Wahhabism - a doctrine which promotes a return to traditional Islamic values - in the republics of Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachaevo-Cherkessia.


The film's message is unambiguous - it sets out to show that the extremist groups are actively recruiting disaffected young people across the region and thus "pose a real threat to security in Russia today".


One of the main centres of Wahhabism is named as Tyrnyauz, a town west of Nalchik, which was recently devastated by a series of mudslides and is still counting the costs of the tragedy.


The first part of "The Caucasian Crescent" was screened in September and sparked mass protests in Karachaevo-Cherkessia. Thousands of people from the Malo-Karachaevsky and the Adyge-Khablsky regions staged public meetings to demand intervention from the Kremlin.


Ethnic leaders made a formal appeal to President Vladimir Putin, complaining that the Karachai and Balkar people had been slandered and the reports had grossly distorted the facts. They also asked for a public retraction from RTR, the television station which is broadcasting the series.


Meanwhile, the government in Cherkessk lodged an official complaint with the Russian prosecutor's office, saying that the series was deliberately aimed at causing ethnic unrest in the North Caucasus and therefore contravened the Russian Criminal Code.


Prominent politicians claimed Masyuk's predominantly "negative tone" had been motivated by her own experiences in Chechnya. Together with a two-man camera team, she was taken hostage in Dagestan and held captive in a mountain cave for more than four months. All three were released after NTV paid an undisclosed sum to the kidnappers.


However, although the prosecutor's office has promised an investigation, it has made no effort to suspend broadcasting while the legal process is under way. In fact, RTR promptly launched a powerful advertising campaign to promote the second instalment.


Local observers speculate that "The Caucasian Crescent" was in fact commissioned by the Kremlin in order to fan the flames of ethnic unrest in the North Caucasus. The logic, they say, is simple: by creating phantoms in the south, President Putin's government can divert attention from economic problems at home.


For the North Caucasus republics, this information war is nothing new. The Kremlin has always kept tight controls on reports coming out of this sensitive region. Most of all, this policy has affected Chechnya - an outcast since Soviet airforce general Dzhokhar Dudaev declared independence there in the early 1990s.


The Balkar academic and Duma deputy, Mikhail Zalikhanov, recently told Nalchik journalists of a trip he made to Grozny in 1994 in a bid to persuade Dudaev to avoid all-out war with Moscow.


On hearing Dudaev's defiant reply, Zalikhanov asked, "But how do you intend to fight a war against such a huge military armada and 110 million Russians?" Dudaev thought for a moment, then showed him a large gold ring on his finger. "You see this ring?" he said. "It was a present from the President of America, Bill Clinton, and he told me then that he would always help the Caucasus."


Not a single editor in the North Caucasus dared to print the story.


Yuri Akbashev is a regular contributor to IWPR