Smokescreen Around Chechnya

Russian journalist Anna Politovskaya (right) and Lisbet Palme (left)

Russian journalist Anna Politovskaya (right), known for her controversial stand in the Chechnya conflict, was awarded the Olof Palme Prize for outstanding achievement in the spirit of Olof Palme in January. Politovskaya and Lisbet Palme (left), wife of slain Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme, pose for the photographer in Stockholm. (Photo: Bertil Ericson / AFP-Getty Images)

Editor’s Note: This is the last of several reports about the effect of the Chechen conflict on Russia on the 10th anniversary of the start of the first war.

When President Boris Yeltsin convened his Security Council in late 1994 to approve the deployment of troops to Chechnya, NTV television had four crews in the republic and elsewhere ready to cover the war.

As soon as armored convoys started rolling into Chechnya on Dec. 11, 1994, NTV and other Russian television crews scrambled to provide up-to-date coverage of Russia’s first post-Soviet military campaign, reporting from both of the warring sides. Risking their lives, both television and print journalists documented and analyzed the cruel war as it unfolded.

A decade after the devastating first siege of Grozny, much of the city remains in ruins, but most Russians will not see that at home because national television channels are now glossing over the news out of Chechnya in line with the Kremlin’s policy to create the impression that life in the republic has returned to normal.

The extent of the devastation is so sugarcoated that even President Vladimir Putin, who initiated the second war in September 1999, expressed shock after a visit to Grozny last May. “We need to look again at the reconstruction of Grozny. Despite all that is being done there, it looks horrible from a helicopter,” Putin told the Cabinet hours after his trip.

The first war convinced the Kremlin more than any other event that it needed to control national television channels — which most Russians rely on for news — to successfully undertake any major national policy.

“Even if those in power were not happy with the media’s coverage of events during President Yeltsin’s rule, journalists were not persecuted. The military could criticize them, but no measures were taken against them,” said Vyacheslav Izmailov, a retired Army major who covered the war for the weekly Novaya Gazeta and helped to secure the release of federal soldiers captured in Chechnya.

Shocked by gory images of federal servicemen burned in their tanks by Chechen rebels, the public became increasingly critical of the first war as it dragged on, and the Kremlin eventually backed down and negotiated a peace agreement with the separatists in August 1996.

By the time the second war began, however, federal authorities had designed and introduced a comprehensive system to limit the access of journalists to Chechnya and shape their coverage. Reporters not only had to secure special accreditation to travel to Chechnya, but once they arrived they were required to stay within designated areas.

Journalists complying with the rules had to rely on spokesmen of the federal troops on the ground or, in Moscow, on Putin’s longtime Chechnya spokesman, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, or the officials who showed up for regular off-the-record briefings at the Rosinformtsentr press center, which was specifically set up to provide the Kremlin’s spin on the war.

Federal officials received instructions on how to deal with questions about Chechnya, including a special glossary that required them to refer to separatists as terrorists, according to reports in the Russian press.

“It became impossible to work,” said Maria Eismont, who covered both wars for the now-defunct Segodnya, a newspaper in Vladimir Gusinsky’s former media empire. “The first thing the authorities did was to stop even snippets of information from coming out of there. In addition to that, we were not allowed to get into Chechnya.”

Eismont was echoed by Alexander Yevtushenko, who covered both conflicts for United States government-backed Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. “The attitude toward journalists completely changed,” he said. “While we were friends of the authorities in the first war, it was impossible to get a word out of the military in the second war. Nobody would talk, even ordinary soldiers. They were instructed not to.”

Correspondents who tried to sneak across battle lines to get the other side of the story from the rebels were often subjected to harassment and intimidation. The murky kidnapping of Radio Liberty correspondent Andrei Babitsky in Chechnya in January 2000 served as a stark reminder of what might happen to those who did not play by the official rules for journalists in Chechnya. As a video camera rolled, Babitsky was then swapped for federal soldiers held captive by Chechen fighters in an exchange clearly staged to discredit him. He was freed in neighboring Dagestan in February 2000, only to be arrested on charges of carrying a forged passport. Babitsky and his colleagues have blamed Russian special services for his problems.

More recently, Babitsky was prevented from flying to Beslan to cover the school hostage crisis in September. He was detained at Moscow’s Vnukovo Airport after airport security said they thought he might have explosives in his suitcase. When he was released, several young men started hassling him, and airport security detained him on suspicion of hooliganism.

Anna Politkovskaya, Novaya Gazeta’s award-winning Chechnya reporter, fell sick on a flight to Beslan and later said she believed she had been poisoned, while a number of Russian and foreign journalists complained of being hassled at the scene of the hostage-taking.

Kremlin spin doctors were only able to put a complete smokescreen around the republic once all of the national television channels were under its control. The Kremlin made its move against the channels shortly after Putin became acting president on Dec. 31, 2000. Privately controlled NTV and ORT, now Channel One, were the obvious targets when they stepped up their criticism as the military campaign slowed down that winter. Both were finally wrested away from their private owners soon after Putin won the presidential election in March 2000, and their coverage of the war subsequently became less and less critical.

The conduct of radical Chechen separatists has also influenced the media’s coverage of the war. Rebels have been linked to the 1999 apartment bombings, the Dubrovka and Beslan hostage crises, and multiple suicide bombings in Moscow.

“Journalists are also a part of Russian society. You have friends and neighbors telling you that the Chechens are not doing the right thing, and your point of view changes,” Eismont said.

In addition, the kidnapping for ransom of Russian journalists — including an NTV crew and the channel’s star reporter from the first Chechen war, Tatyana Masyuk, in 1997 — turned some in media circles against the Chechen rebels even before the second war began. “You cannot write objectively about someone who thinks more about a bag of money than a person,” said Alexei Simonov, head of the Glasnost Defense Foundation media watchdog.

These factors, combined with Kremlin pressure, have made it nearly impossible for journalists to provide balanced coverage of Chechnya.

“Censorship is now the rule of the game in Chechnya,” said Oleg Panfilov, head of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations. “The republic is an isolated territory. We do not get any information from there. Comparing our press now to what it was during the first war would be like comparing the European press to the North Korean press.”

Originally published Dec. 17, 2004. Other articles in the series: “Chechnya Tore Rights Movement Apart ,” and “Army Learned Few Lessons From Chechnya.”