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Russia: Press Ban Doesn't Bother Regional Media

In Moscow, Russian media had little to say about last week's warning by the Information Ministry that interviewing Chechen leaders would be considered a violation of anti-terrorism laws. Outside of Moscow, Russian news organizations showed even less interest. RFE/RL correspondent Floriana Fossato spoke with Russian-based media experts to find out why.

London, 21 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The Russian Information Ministry's warning last week against reporting the words of Chechen leaders raised the hackles of a few Moscow-based journalists. But journalists in Russia's regions expressed little concern. And media experts say that is not very surprising.

Robert Coalson is a regional project coordinator at the National Press Institute, a nongovernmental organization that assists Russian independent regional news outlets. He says that regional media, particularly newspapers, lack the expertise to analyze complicated political matters. Therefore, they tend to rely on Moscow.

"Ideally, of course, the media should have a strong element of questioning government policies in general and stimulating public debate on them. In Russia, that has never been the case. The media are viewed by politicians and by the public in general more as an agitator or an informer of what the official line is, rather than to stimulate public discussion of things."

Regional media in particular, Coalson says, lack the resources and expertise to analyze complicated political matters. Therefore, they tend to simply report the views of Moscow officials.

Oleg Dmitriev is a correspondent for Internews, a nongovernmental organization that supports independent media. After the Information Ministry announced that among those barred from media access are Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, field commander Shamil Basayev, and former spokesman Mavladi Udugov -- the top sources for the Chechen point of view in covering the Chechen war -- Dmitriev talked with television station editors in several Russian regions, including Tatarstan, Kaliningrad, and Siberia.

In all cases, the television editors said they did not feel affected by the measure. They said that their priority is to provide what the audience demands, not to seek out the other side. They seemed uninterested in drawing lessons for other regions from Chechnya's fate. Dmitriev:

"In general, there is no interest for the relationship between the situation in Chechnya and cities like Kaliningrad, or Petrozavodsk. Obviously, what does concern audiences in [places like] Petrozavodsk is information on the local boys [serving in Chechnya.] As a rule, information from the other side (the Chechen side) is not broadcast because, we could say, it is not in demand."

What the people want to hear about, the television editors say, is the fate of local soldiers fighting in Chechnya, therefore, takes precedence in Russian reporting. The fate of civilians is less important. Dmitriev:

"The regions have little to do with Chechnya. However, they show Chechen [refugees] arriving in their region from the area of the conflict, how they are housed, etc. But editors say that, for what concerns voices [of guerrilla leaders], their task is a bit different. [The Kazan TV station] Efir, for instance, recently prepared a news item on how the appearance of [Chechen warlord] Salman Raduyev has changed. They did talk about that. But this is not a top subject. What is more important is reporting on [Russia's prosecution of] the war. Receiving information from opposition forces comes in second, or even third, place."

But Dmitriev says he noticed one main difference in coverage among regional television broadcasters. That is in Kazan, the capital of the republic of Tatarstan, where many viewers are Muslim.

"I talked to Sergei Sherstnev, news editor of the TV company 'Efir' from Kazan. Their credo concerning reports from Chechnya is to leave out any negative characterization of events. They broadcast information, but do not comment it."

In many regions, when Chechen warlords are arrested, television broadcasters generally say "a just punishment awaits him." But the Kazan station did not use such language when Salman Raduyev was arrested.

According to the National Press Institute's Coalson regional governors, who have been competing among themselves to demonstrate the greatest loyalty to Putin, have strong influence on regional television programming.

"The primary role of the local administrations and of governors is to minimize discussion of such things as Chechnya, and to maximize discussion of, 'a,' concrete local issues, such as raising pensions and getting wages paid on time and 'b,' abstract issues that everybody can support, such as patriotism, a strong state, respect for Russia abroad."

Regional television editors told Dmitriev, however, that regional leaders generally do not interfere directly with their Chechnya coverage. Most coverage of the war consists of interviews with local soldiers who have returned alive, and the funerals of those who did not.