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Russia: New Information Strategy Echoes The Old

The Russian government has responded to accusations that it has withheld information about the war in Chechnya by inaugurating what it calls a new information policy. But as RFE/RL's correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports from Moscow, journalists fear that the new policy will look much like the old.

Moscow, 1 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The Kremlin's spokesman on Chechnya, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, last week announced what he called new measures to make it easier for reporters to cover the conflict.

One new measure is a pledge to publish names of all Russian soldiers killed in Chechnya. The government has been widely criticized by anti-war groups who accuse it of underreporting the number of casualties.

But our correspondent reports that many journalists and military experts say that such measures are just window-dressing. They say they doubt that the government is really changing its hostile stance toward reporters covering the war.

Even as Yastrzhembsky was speaking of the new strategy in Moscow, Russian authorities in Chechnya were secretly holding one war correspondent, Radio Liberty's Andrei Babitsky, in confinement. It was revealed later that Yastrzhembsky had denied knowledge of Babitsky's whereabouts for days after the journalist was detained.

And the timing of Yastrzhembsky's appointment -- two weeks ago -- as spokesman for Chechen war issues seems to some to be evidence that the government just wants to further control access to information about the war.

His appointment coincided with growing Russian media criticism of a war that was running into trouble. Troops were bogged down in street-fighting in Grozny, and Chechen forces were raiding Russian-controlled towns.

Inaugurating the new strategy last week, Yastrzhembsky said the purpose was to make journalists' work in the region easier. He said there would be daily press briefings in Moscow, a new system of accreditation to permit more journalists in the region, and two official military press centers in Chechnya with organized transport and communications for the press.

So far, Yastrzhembsky's press briefings are a well-attended daily event. Today, he announced that the forms for the new accreditations were in the process of being printed and would be available to everyone. These accreditations will give journalists the possibility to take part in trips to Chechnya, he said -- but those trips will be organized by the Russian authorities.

He also said that the authorities were busy working out a way to fill what he called the "legal vacuum" that omits rules on journalists' work in hot spots. Russian journalists are skeptical.

Valeri Yakov has traveled to Chechnya several times to report on the war for the Russian daily "Novye Izvestia." He says the measures are just a cover for more censorship.

The proposed press centers in Mozdok and Khankala, Yakov writes, will be located at Russian military bases and will only be open to carefully chosen journalists according to their loyalty.

Lack of accreditation was one of the declared causes of the Radio Liberty journalist's arrest -- although it is not technically illegal to report from Chechnya without accreditation.

One man with the inside story on how the Russian government gives out war information is General Vladimir Kosarev, former head of the Russian Defense Ministry's Information Department. He told RFE/RL he equates the Defense Ministry's fearful and suspicious attitude toward journalists with Lenin's attitude toward the bourgeoisie.

"Probably this is a tradition of the Soviet and then the Russian army, or rather not of the army itself but of the authorities. They never understood that they have to tell journalists the truth. What's happening inside the army, the Defense Ministry, General Headquarters, were always for a society in which a secret was protected by seven seals. Although a lot changed since Soviet times, this has remained. On the one hand it's because of the fear of taking responsibility. On the other hand, it's just not understanding the role of the press in a modern society. They underestimate the press. For them, [journalists] are a bunch of not serious people who bother them and can't mind their own business." Kosarev said that when he was at the Defense Ministry's information department, the department's role was to build a solid wall between the army and the media. As spokesperson, he says, he voiced the official line, however ludicrous. When unmarked planes began bombing Chechnya in 1994, Kosarev repeated the ministry's official denial again and again -- although it later came out that the planes were in fact from the Russian army.

"[In Russia] the rules and the order of democracy are not implemented. This is all the more the case for the military. They just don't get it."

Kosarev quit his job in 1995, during the first Chechen war, because, he says, he was disgusted at the army's willingness to issue false information. He now runs the Military Information Agency, an independent news service staffed by former military staff members and journalists with military contacts.