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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Covering And Covering Up A War

Washington, 23 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Moscow's decision to bar Russia's radio and television networks from carrying interviews with Chechen or Daghestani leaders has drawn fire from media watchdog groups around the world as well as raising broader questions about press freedom there.

Last Tuesday, the Russian government's new Ministry for the Press, Television and Radio Broadcasting issued a formal warning to all Russian national radio and television networks against any broadcasting of interviews with what it called "Islamist rebel leaders" during the current military conflict.

The ministry, whose creation earlier this year sparked concerns that it would be used to muzzle the press in advance of parliamentary and presidential elections, argued that by putting such interviews on the air, the country's broadcasters were in effect helping the Daghestanis and Chechens to wage "a massive propaganda war," to incite ethnic and religious intolerance, and to promote a change in Russia's borders.

In a letter to Russian President Boris Yeltsin, the New York-based Committee to Project Journalists denounced this action, noting that the ministry's "current effort to control the content of television news coverage and the introduction of prior censorship under any circumstances violate all of Russia's international obligations to guarantee press freedom."

Like other media groups, the Committee to Project Journalists called on Yeltsin to "lift this ban immediately." It also asked the Russian president to use his influence to end efforts at media censorship by the authorities in both Daghestan and Chechnya, each of which have restricted the activities of journalists there, and to seek the release of journalists now held captive in the North Caucasus.

As all sides in the Chechen and Daghestani conflicts clearly understand, modern wars and especially conflicts between small groups seeking independence and large states interested in denying them that opportunity are fought in the media just as much as they are fought on the ground.

During Russia's failed invasion of Chechnya in the mid-1990s, the Russian authorities saw their position undermined not only by the resistance of Chechen forces but by media coverage in Moscow itself. That coverage frequently contradicted official claims and played a major role in shifting Russian public opinion against a continuation of Moscow's efforts there.

In the last two weeks, Russian officials have watched a similar dynamic at work as Russian forces pound the guerillas in Daghestan. The Russian media have carried reports indicating that Moscow's claims of an impending victory over this or that opponent were simply untrue. And press and especially electronic media have given Daghestani leaders a chance to underscore the difficulties Moscow will face if it continues the war.

The Russian government's decision to do so is thus understandable, but it is certain to cause growing concern. On the one hand, now that Moscow has acknowledged that the struggle in Daghestan will not be over anytime soon, it means that the Russian people are going to be denied information that they will need to evaluate what is going on and thus make them more cynical about all press reports.

And on the other, Moscow's use of its new communications ministry to impose something more than battlefield censorship in this context suggests that many Russian leaders may be prepared to use this power against the media whenever they get in trouble. That would represent a serious retreat from the various commitments to democratic freedoms that the Russian government has made. And even if Moscow does not make use of this power in the future, its willingness and ability to do so during the Daghestani conflict will send a chill through Russian political and social life.

Throughout history, journalists have regularly observed that during a military conflict, truth is often "the first casualty." Indeed, many governments have restricted press coverage of one or another aspect of military conflicts in which they are engaged. But what the Russian authorities have done in the current case may put at stake not only truth and Russian control over Daghestan, but over the future fate of democracy in Russia as well.