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Analysis: When A Rumor Is As Good As A Bomb

Balakovo Nuclear Power Plant On 4-5 November, a wave of panic, fueled apparently by false rumors, swept over the region around the Balakovo Nuclear Power Plant in Saratov Oblast, Russian media reported. The panic reached the cities of Saratov, Samara, Mari-El, Ulyanovsk, Tolyatti, and Penza, as well as many towns and villages in the region, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 10 November. At least 10 cases of iodine poisoning were registered, as panicked locals tried to protect themselves from the effects of radiation.

As late as 10 November, official media in the effected cities were working to dispel the panic and reassure the public. "Mariiskaya pravda" in Mari-El reported on 10 November that unknown people were still calling around the city warning that a radioactive cloud was approaching and the people should be taking iodine.

Balakovo is a massive plant, generating 28 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity each year. Its four reactors provide one-quarter of the energy needs of the Volga Federal District and supply electricity to the Urals and the North Caucasus as well. It generates one-fifth of all of Russia's nuclear power and the construction of two additional reactors at the plant is scheduled for the next five or 10 years, according to "Kommersant-Daily" on 6 November.

Therefore, the appearance on 4 November of a website supposedly created by "independent journalists" that reported that "four workers have died and 18 others have received burns of various degrees" in an accident on the night of 3-4 November and that "the situation is critical" was enough to start something of a chain reaction of rumor. However, media reports from throughout the region indicate that anonymous telephone callers posing as Emergency Situations Ministry workers were calling schools and enterprises and "warning" them of the danger.

"People were terrified and thought it was the end of the world," Anna Vinogradova, head of a Saratov NGO, told "Kommersant-Daily" on 6 November. "The entire city went mad." The panic only abated late on 5 November when presidential envoy to the Volga Federal District Sergei Kirienko was shown on local television touring all four Balakovo reactors.
The K&M news agency titled its 9 November analysis of the events "a chain reaction of no confidence in the authorities."

The chain reaction did not end there, however. On 10 November, the Voronezh-based news agency Moe reported that someone in that city was spreading nearly identical rumors of an accident at the Novovornezhskaya Nuclear Power Plant. The Voronezh Oblast administration was compelled to issue a statement condemning the copycat rumormongers and assuring the public that all was normal at the plant.

Prosecutors quickly opened a criminal investigation into the matter and pledged to find the source of the rumors. But the scare set off another chain reaction, as officials and analysts sought to place the blame for the incident. Konstantin Bandorin, deputy chairman of the Saratov Oblast Public Chamber, told a roundtable in Perm on 10 November that the panic is a clear example of "informational terrorism," RosBalt reported. "I hope that the media that spread incorrect information will be held criminally liable," Bandorin said.

The government daily "Rossiiskaya gazeta" and other state media led the clamor of accusations against the media. On 9 November, "Rossiiskaya gazeta" quoted Saratov Oblast Search and Rescue Service head Oleg Mostar as charging bluntly, "This hysteria was fueled by the media." "Some radio stations, without having any official information, broadcast reports of a radioactive cloud moving over the city," he said. The daily also reported that some media outlets were offering speculation on how long it would take the radioactive cloud to reach Samara.

Federal Atomic Energy Agency spokesman Nikolai Shingarev told ITAR-TASS on 9 November that the media "should have more responsibly handled the spread of information that can cause panic among the population and should have made sure 100 percent that it was professionally correct and corresponding to reality."

Shingarev further noted that the media "continued to report false information" even after official statements explained that there was no emergency, indicating the low level of public confidence in such government assurances. The K&M news agency titled its 9 November analysis of the events "a chain reaction of no confidence in the authorities," noting that officials were slow to issue statements, that the statements were formulaic and not reassuring, and that the public -- recalling Chornobyl and other cases -- is inclined to disregard such statements in any case. As recently as September, the government and state-controlled federal media admitted that official statements intentionally downplayed the number of hostages taken at a school in Beslan, North Ossetia, in order to avoid setting off panic and ethnic conflict in the region.

Some local officials also blamed environmentalists for sowing panic. The press center of the Balakovo plant on 10 November issued a statement saying that "some representatives of the 'greens' made their contribution to fuelling the panic by irresponsibly advising the public to take iodine." The statement continued by charging that after prosecutors opened their investigation, environmentalists began "taking steps to escape responsibility."

Commentator Aleksandr Yemelyanenkov, in a 9 November commentary in "Rossiiskaya gazeta," pinned the blame primarily on local officials, who suffer from the "old illness" of clamming up when the going gets tough. He argued that the initial announcements on 4 November demonstrated "formulaic wording and an obvious desire to allay fears" and that they were followed up by silence even as the rumors gained intensity. "How are [journalists] supposed to obtain official comments if the press services refuse to say anything or merely parrot the same phrases and if officials themselves lack detailed information about what has happened and avoid contacts with the media?" he wrote.

Moreover, Yemelyanenkov emphasized the general lack of public confidence in the truthfulness of government statements. "People have long since lost confidence in local bosses, who are accustomed to keeping malfunctions secret," he wrote.

On 10 November, the NGO Ekozashchita sent an open letter to the Federal Atomic Energy Agency arguing that only impartial, independent monitoring of nuclear power plants can prevent similar disinformation episodes, arguing that the authorities -- and especially nuclear-sector officials -- "do not have the trust of the people," reported. However, the overall trend in Russia and around the world since the launching of the war on international terrorism has been toward increased secrecy and decreased public access to information about potential targets such as nuclear power plants.

So how can this type of "information terrorism" be thwarted in Russia? Well, the Saratov branch of the All-Russia State Television and Radio Company (VGTRK) reported on 10 November that there was little panic in the town of Balakovo itself both because local media "quickly provided objective information" and because "most local residents have their own Geiger counters."

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