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Analysis: A War On Terrorists Or A War On Journalists?

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.