Accessibility links

Media Matters: September 13, 2004

13 September 2004, Volume 4, Number 17
By Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

As the hostage drama unfolded in Beslan, North Ossetia, early this month, rumors swirled that Russian police had been unable to prevent terrorists from preparing and delivering explosives in advance, and then taking over a school. And as the crisis escalated, officials proved unable to cordon off the area or to stop vigilantes from attempting to bring the terrorists to justice. They failed to control the chaotic events of the rescue attempt and bomb explosions, after which 336 people were found dead, half of them children.

Yet whatever their security failures, relying on decades of experience, officials were able to seal off information about the true number of hostages and the dimensions of the crisis, as well as to keep away journalists intent on covering the events critically. In its mishandling of information and mistreatment of reporters trying to cover the horror of Beslan, the Russian government has proven once again that press freedom is not only the first casualty of war; its absence is the leading factor in the public's loss of confidence in the government's ability to protect it from terrorism. The events in Beslan have shown that the consequences of an information vacuum are disastrous. "People dismiss the state that has left them in the lurch and try to act on their own," Anna Politkovskaya wrote for "The Guardian" on 9 September.

Two Russian journalists known for their investigative reporting of the two wars in Chechnya were barred from traveling to North Ossetia. Politkovskaya, a well-known war correspondent who has been covering the Chechen conflict for "Novaya gazeta," was en route to Beslan when she suddenly fell severely ill and was hospitalized. In a plane en route to Rostov-na-Donu, she collapsed; doctors later said she appeared to have been poisoned, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported, citing "Novaya gazeta" Editor in Chief Dmitrii Muratov. She was treated at a clinic in Rostov and then taken to Moscow. Colleagues said she suffered kidney and liver damage and that efforts to analyze blood samples for possible toxic substances were thwarted because, as nurses whispered to the reporter, orders had been given to destroy the tests. Politkovskaya said she had eaten nothing and had only drunk some tea on the plane. She is now recovering and has written about her ordeal.

The incident was eerily similar to the poisoning of Yurii Shchekochikhin, a journalist and parliamentarian who investigated the 1999 Moscow apartment bombings that touched off the second Chechen war, among other things. Shchekochikhin died of "an acute allergic reaction," but the circumstances of his death have never been investigated.

Andrei Babitsky, a reporter for RFE/RL's Russian Service who was kidnapped in Chechnya by federal forces in 2000 and held for about 40 days, was stopped at Moscow's Vnukovo Airport on 2 September and prevented from boarding a plane to Mineralniye Vody. Police claimed he was carrying explosives and searched his luggage. Although no explosives were found, an incident then appears to have been staged in which two men provoked Babitsky so that police subsequently charged him with hooliganism, RFE/RL reported. He was sentenced to five days in jail and released after paying a 1,000-ruble ($34) fine, although he denied the accusations.

In an interview with RFE/RL on 8 September, Babitsky said he believes the government did not want him or Politkovskaya to report from Beslan, and he speculated that if the terrorists heard they were on the scene, they might have sought to involve them in the negotiations. "The authorities didn't want to allow this to happen, and they wanted to exclude any possibilities of negotiations," Babitsky told RFE/RL.

During the October 2002 Moscow theater hostage taking, some Russian and foreign journalists played roles in talks with the terrorists and conveyed information in an effort to get them to release hostages.

The cost of the Kremlin's information suppression in Beslan in terms of public trust was enormous, some media complained, with headlines such as "Chronicle of Lies" on the front page of "Moskovskii komsomolets" and "Lies Provoked Terrorists' Aggression" in "Novaya gazeta," "The Moscow Times" reported on 7 September.

Media must walk a fine line during any hostage drama, as kidnappers who engage in high-profile terrorist acts to draw attention to their cause and to increase pressure on the government rely on dramatic, round-the-clock media coverage to amplify their demands. Moreover, the authorities sometimes use the media to appear to give terrorists what they want, while actually playing to gain time and save lives. The public demands the right to know about threats to safety and how authorities handle hostage crises.

In the case of Beslan, survivors of the ordeal say the terrorists became incensed when they saw only limited television coverage of their takeover of the school and found that officials were underreporting the number of their hostages, claiming some 300 instead of the 1,000 or more actually held. The Kremlin-controlled RTR later admitted that officials had covered up the truth about the number of hostages, and a number of newspapers and websites began to clamor for accurate information. Ultimately, say eyewitnesses cited in newspapers such as "Novaya gazeta," the terrorists might have been pushed toward increased aggression by this suppression of the numbers of hostages in reporting.

Media organizations were also angered that authorities stonewalled on questions about whether they were negotiating with the hostage takers and on the nature of the terrorists' demands. Without hard official information, some more independent newspapers interviewed anguished townspeople and let such stories dominate their coverage. Other papers resorted to Soviet-style tactics, printing angry letters to the editor in support of the government's position. On 6 September, published one that criticized "The New York Times" for allegedly "sympathizing" with Chechens, failing to condemn the terrorists, and criticizing "a botched rescue attempt by Russian forces."

The Vienna-based International Press Institute, which monitors and promotes press freedom, issued a statement on 7 September saying it is "worried" about attempts to "massage" reporting of the Beslan crisis as journalists were detained, forced to resign, and possibly poisoned. IPI said the incidents appeared to be "a concerted attempt to control" coverage of the Beslan hostage crisis.

IPI has traced the trend of press-freedom restriction in Russia back to the adoption in 2000 of the Information Security Doctrine, in which the government called for "special legal and organizational methods to prevent unlawful information and psychological influences on the mass consciousness," the organization said in its 7 September press release. The policy does not spell out that officials should withhold or spin information, but the practice is widespread.

More than just prominent journalists associated with past investigative reporting appear to have been thwarted from gaining access to Beslan. It appears the Kremlin might have issued orders to prevent any reporters with potentially troublesome affiliations to be allowed near the scene. Airport security detained Amro Abdal Hamid, the Moscow bureau chief of Al-Arabiyah, the Arab satellite-television channel, at the airport in Mineralnye Vody, RIA-Novosti reported on 7 September. Hamid is an Egyptian with Russian citizenship and was informed that he would be detained for two days, although the charges were unclear, IPI reported on 8 September. An airline official said Hamid was returning to Moscow from Beslan, where he had reported on the crisis, when a prohibited item was discovered in his luggage, RIA-Novosti reported, indicating that the object in question was not identified by the airline.

When the independent Georgian television station Rustavi-2 sent a camera crew to the region, journalist Nana Leshasva and cameraman Levan Tetvadze were detained in Beslan on 4 September. On 6 September, local prosecutors charged them with entering Russia without visas and remanded them for 10 days of pretrial detention.

The journalists responded that as residents of Georgia's Kasbegi region, they had the right under an agreement between Russia and Georgia to enter North Ossetia without visas. The Georgian Foreign Ministry called the arrests "outrageous," RFE/RL reported, and Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili demanded that Putin immediately release the reporters. After five days of detention, the two were released, and Leshasva said she believed she had been given some kind of drug while in custody that kept her asleep and possibly made her answer questions in an interrogation without remembering it, Rustavi 2 reported on 8 September.

In the coming weeks, as newspapers and even state-controlled television are forced to deal with growing public demand for answers about what happened in Beslan, the Kremlin might resort to stonewalling or more heavy-handed techniques against the press, as it has done at other moments of crisis. Still, it is likely that a turning point for both the media and society has been reached with this most horrific terrorist attack in Russia in the modern era, and the need to understand and prevent such tragedies will override the age-old tendency toward secrecy.

(Catherine A. Fitzpatrick is editor of "RFE/RL (Un)Civil Societies.")

By Robert Coalson

On 6 September, "Izvestiya" Editor in Chief Raf Shakirov, one of Russia's most respected journalists, submitted his resignation, a belated casualty of the horrific terrorist attack on the school in Beslan, North Ossetia. The resignation came amid widespread criticism both in Russia and abroad that state-controlled television had done much to minimize and sanitize the hostage crisis, in which well over 300 people were killed.

Shakirov told RFE/RL's Russian Service on 6 September that he had been obliged to resign following a dispute with his publisher over the 4 September issue of "Izvestiya," which featured large-format, heart-wrenching pictures of the storming of the school. "Generally speaking, I and the management of ProfMedia [the media holding company of oligarch Vladimir Potanin that controls "Izvestiya," "Komsomolskaya pravda," and other media properties] disagreed over the format of that issue," Shakirov told RFE/RL. "Some felt it was too emotional and too poster-like, that newspapers do not in principle do such things."

Shakirov said that half of the 4 September issue was devoted to the events in Beslan and that the editorial board decided consciously to create a poster-like impression. "The first page has an enormous photograph, and the last page does too," Shakirov said. "We did this, of course, not because of some sort of pretentiousness, but out of a sense of the enormous significance [of the events] for the country. And in general that sense was later confirmed -- that this is a war. People tell me that this is like 22 June [the date of the Nazi German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941], and I really believe that this is [another] 22 June."

The 4 September issue of "Izvestiya" was certainly a radical departure from the daily's normally staid format, one that is still somewhat reminiscent of its Soviet-era appearance. However, it was not unlike the kind of design that many U.S. and world newspapers used in the wake of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States. Visually, it embodies the same sentiment that President Vladimir Putin expressed to the country later the same day. "This is a challenge to all of Russia, to all our people," Putin said. "This is an attack against all of us. We are dealing with a direct intervention of international terror against Russia, with total and full-scale war." The front-page photograph of the 4 September issue of "Izvestiya," depicting a nearly naked and hysterical girl being carried from the scene by a shocked but determined-looking man, illustrates exactly what Putin was describing.

Shakirov, who formerly served as editor in chief of "Kommersant-Daily" and "Gazeta," was named head of "Izvestiya" in November 2003. Under his leadership, the paper blossomed and shed much of its previously conservative stance. During the Beslan crisis, the daily distinguished itself from the state media by, among other things, casting doubt on official information that there were only about 350 hostages in the school. On 2 September, the paper printed a harsh front-page editorial by Deputy Editor Georgii Bovt that described the hostage crisis as "a moment of truth" for Putin. That editorial was translated and reprinted in the 3 September issue of "The Moscow Times."

On 3 September, the paper printed critical comments from a range of political and cultural figures, all of which pointed to the same conclusion: Russia has become a more dangerous country since Putin became president. "We see helplessness and loss of control on the part of the federal government and the special services," independent Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov said. "They cannot prevent acts of terrorism, nor can they clean up the consequences." "We simply cannot live that way, closing our eyes to the past and to the situation we find ourselves in," theater director Yurii Lyubimov was quoted as saying.

Immediately following news of Shakirov's resignation, the Russian media was full of reports that the move had been ordered by the Kremlin. An unidentified "Izvestiya" staff member told "The Moscow Times" on 7 September that "there was a call from the Kremlin asking that the editor be fired." Seemingly confirming this version of events, ProfMedia Deputy Director Yevgenii Abov told "The Moscow Times" that he learned about Shakirov's departure from media reports.

The journalistic community was clearly shaken by Shakirov's departure, noting that only the media were punished following the October 2002 hostage crisis at a Moscow theater. Following that event, NTV General Director Boris Jordan was forced to step down and journalists were compelled to create standards of conduct on the coverage of terrorist incidents following serious threats of legal limitations on press freedom. RFE/RL reported that ProfMedia head Rafael Akopov also was forced to leave NTV with Jordan following the October 2002 events. "Akopov simply could not have treated Shakirov the same way on his own initiative," journalist Yelena Rykovtseva told RFE/RL on 6 September.

"The current departure of a significant journalist follows a certain tendency that simply cannot not be frightening," "Ogonek" Editor in Chief Viktor Loshak told RFE/RL on 6 September, "because this is a departure from the basic principles of the country that we have been building for the last 10 years." Kommersant publishing house General Director Andrei Vasilev told "Vedomosti" on 7 September that Shakirov's departure is "a conscious signal from the Kremlin to journalists and the elites that now it is extending its hand to the print media as well." An unidentified analyst described as being "close to the Kremlin" told the daily that the Kremlin considers "Izvestiya," "Komsomolskaya pravda," and "Argumenty i fakty" to be "national treasures." "Potanin apparently received a reproach from the Kremlin, where this issue was seen as a hostile leaflet of the opposition," the source said.

By Eugen Tomiuc

A worldwide media watchdog group is calling for the international community to help secure the release of a Moldovan television cameraman detained by security forces in the separatist region of Transdniester.

Reports say Transdniestrian militiamen beat Dinu Mija late on 6 September. He was then detained and convicted of illegally visiting the breakaway region and of allegedly injuring a militiaman. Moldovan officials said Mija was sentenced to 15 days in prison.

The media watchdog group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said international organizations should help Moldovan authorities secure Mija's release. Soria Blatmann, who heads the Europe desk of RSF in Paris, told RFE/RL: "We are very concerned about the fate of Dinu Mija. We know how difficult it is to make a proper work as a journalist in this region, and we have called on Russia, Ukraine, the European Union, and the [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] and also the Council of Europe to respond to the appeal that the Moldovan authorities issued [yesterday]. And we hope that they will all use their influence to secure the release of this cameraman as soon as possible."

On 6 September, Mija was preparing to film the seizure of a railway station in the city of Bender-Tighina in Transdniester. The railway was still under the control of officials loyal to the Moldovan government.

Adela Raileanu, head of the news department at Moldova's public television station, said Transdniestrian forces attacked the cameraman, although he was accompanied by Moldovan police, and seized his camera and videotape. "Some 12 plainclothes [Transdniestrian] militiamen beat not only our cameraman [Dinu Mija], but also our policemen. We only know that the camera was destroyed in the process, but we don't know Dinu's condition. We have no details so far," Raileanu said.

The Moldovan government has appealed to the European Union, Russia, Ukraine, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to help secure Mija's release.

The incident comes amid increasing tension between Moldova and Transdniester.

Russian-speaking separatists closed several Romanian-language schools in the enclave earlier this summer, prompting Moldova's government to retaliate by withdrawing from talks with Transdniester and by blocking exports from the region. In response, separatists cut off electricity supplies to southern and central parts of Moldova and blocked some railway lines.

In the latest incident, Transdniestrian militias on 6 September took over the station in Bender-Tighina, 45 kilometers east of Moldova's capital, forcing workers to leave. One employee was injured and another was detained together with cameraman Dinu Mija.

Pro-Russian Transdniester declared independence in 1990 over fears that Romanian-speaking Moldova might seek reunification with neighboring Romania. In the summer of 1992, the two sides fought a short war in which some 1,500 were killed. Moldova and Transdniester have yet to reach a truce agreement, despite decade-long talks under the auspices of Russia, Ukraine, and the OSCE.

"The OSCE mission is concerned about the situation in Bender -- that is, after the arrest of a Moldovan television cameraman there and especially after the situation around the railway station in the city," said Claus Neukirch, the spokesman of the OSCE's mission to Moldova, which has been involved in efforts to jump-start negotiations between the two sides.

The Moldovan cameraman's arrest came in the wake of another incident on 4 September, when Transdniestrian militiamen detained a BBC television crew for several hours. The crew was seized while attempting to shoot footage of a Soviet-era munitions dump in the village of Colbasna.

In a statement, Transdniestrian officials accused the BBC team of possibly having engaged in espionage. The statement said the BBC crew "could have been collecting military intelligence for NATO or the United States."

RSF's Soria Blatmann said the latest incidents highlight the dangers faced by both domestic and foreign journalists who are attempting to report from Transdniester. "When you try to go there, [it does not matter] that you're a Moldovan journalist or international press," she said. "You cannot do your job freely there, and it's a big problem, and I think that the international community has to worry about it -- now."

(Eugen Tomiuc is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Prague.)