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Chechnya: An Information War Rages Alongside Military Campaign

  • Valentinas Mite

On 2 February, Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov appeared on pirate Chechen television to say that militants were prepared to launch a new drive against Russian troops ahead of a constitutional referendum scheduled by Moscow for 23 March. The broadcast underscored questions about how opposition information is disseminated to the Chechen public as the war grinds on into its fourth year. RFE/RL reports on how Chechen separatists are using underground media to make their message heard.

Prague, 7 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- An information war is raging alongside the military campaign in Chechnya. The pro-Russian Chechen administration controls all the official media in the republic. This includes the Chechen-language newspaper "Daimohk," and a Russian-language paper, "Vesti Groznovo," both of which are circulated throughout Chechnya. The administration also controls the republic's local papers and all official radio and television broadcasts.

As a result, there is no easy way for Chechen separatists to get their message to the public, but they still manage. On 2 February, separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov used a pirate television broadcast to denounce next month's scheduled constitutional referendum and to warn that rebels were ready to launch a new drive against Russian troops in the republic.

The broadcast was seen in districts on Chechnya's western border with Ingushetia, the Russian region that has housed tens of thousands of Chechens fleeing the war. A subsequent broadcast featured footage of Chechen fighters training for battle.

Musa Khasanov is a journalist with RFE/RL's Russian Service who lives and works in the Chechen capital Grozny. He said that in addition to Chechen- and Russian-language newspapers, the pro-Russian administration has control of the republic's radio and television programs, which he characterizes as short on hard news and long on Kremlin ideology.

RFE/RL attempted on numerous occasions to reach Beslan Chaladov, the head of Chechen State Radio and Television, but with no success.

Speaking by cell phone to RFE/RL, Khasanov said that in the capital, the Chechen public is relatively well-informed about the attitudes and actions of the separatist government, largely due to the underground newspaper "Ichkeria" (Chechnya). "For instance, it has recently become almost routine that in the morning, as you leave your home, you find a bunch of 'Ichkeria' newspapers being placed at your front door. The latest issue was about [the head of Chechnya's pro-Russian government] Mikhail Babich, and it was devoted not to the nicest aspects of his biography but to some of his [alleged] criminal activities," Khasanov said.

The source of the newspaper is unclear. Khasanov said that people believe "Ichkeria" is printed outside Chechnya and smuggled across the border for photocopying and distribution. He said that bribes even as small as $2 are usually enough to get the newspapers past the Russian checkpoints along the republic's border.

Television is a more complicated matter. During the first Chechen war (1994-96), Khasanov said, separatists could seize broadcast frequencies for short periods, with announcements of former Chechen President Djokhar Dudaev cutting into soap operas and other programs at random to discuss the resistance movement.

The current situation is more complicated. Now, Khasanov said, Chechen militants are believed to have set up a mobile broadcasting unit in the mountains, and surfing television frequencies has become standard practice for many Chechens hoping to catch one of TV Ichkeria's irregular 30-minute broadcasts. Khasanov described Maskhadov's address on 2 February: "The last program was clearly seen and heard in the Achhoi-Martan and Shunzhevskii regions of Chechnya. It was a one-hour program in which Aslan Maskhadov spoke about the readiness of Chechen resistance forces and the situation among the armed resistance. [He] said that now, on his orders, large detachments of Chechen fighters have split into small groups and are waiting for the end of the winter and that with spring big operations against the Russian forces in Chechnya are planned."

Khasanov says that rebels have their own Radio Ichkeria as well. The programs are thought to be produced by the rebels and then transmitted through a system created by so-called radio hooligans who use homemade broadcasting equipment to transmit the newscasts as far as 200 kilometers away. He said the amateur broadcasters in this start-up network also keep each other informed when Russian interceptors are in the area.

In conclusion, Khasanov said, the system works, but imperfectly: "You can listen to the radio and watch TV in Grozny, but there are some regions where the signal is of bad quality: in places where Russian troops are deployed, near the buildings of the [pro-Russian] administration. The signal is bad there."

Ruslan Badalov is the chairman of the Committee of National Salvation, a nongovernmental organization working to support Chechen refugees in neighboring Ingushetia. He said that refugees coming from Chechnya bring copies of "Ichkeria," as well as videos and audio tapes produced by the separatists. Badalov described "Ichkeria's" content: "The newspaper writes about the crimes of Russian forces in Chechnya. Some analytical articles are published on relations between Russia and Chechnya. Some translated texts from the foreign press are presented. It depends on the events: let's say a session of [the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe], its resolution [on Chechnya], or an appeal by President Maskhadov were covered."

Badalov said the Russian authorities are very angry about the circulation of so-called bandit newspapers among the refugees. In refugee camps, most Chechens get their information about the war by word of mouth. "People often try to predict their future based on rumors," Badalov said. All the same, both he and Khasanov said the pro-Russian administration is losing, and the separatists winning, the information war in Chechnya.