Russian press battles government over war coverage


MOSCOW -- Last month, when Russian forces carried out their most intense daytime bombing raid on the capital of the breakaway region of Chechnya, Russian state television correspondent Mikhail Zotov reported on the grim tableau of burning vehicles and blackened corpses.

But not all the obstacles Mr. Zotov encountered were in Grozny, the Chechen capital. Although he was asked to transmit his material to Moscow by 7:15 p.m., Mr. Zotov said he stalled until the beginning of his network's 9 p.m. news broadcast to make certain it got past the time-pressured editors, who have the responsibility to protect the government's interests. "If we had sent it earlier, it never would have been shown," he said.

Russian journalists covering the war between Russia and Chechnya find themselves facing a war of words with their own government, which has mounted a campaign against the press that harks back to the days of Soviet rule.

Mr. Zotov and others are resorting to tactics to fight what was once common during one-party rule: A daily flood of disinformation, attempts at censorship and threats to end the media's hard-fought independence.

For example, state-run news agencies were told last week that they are now "obliged to provide the official point of view of the government" in addition to other sources on events in Chechnya, while the Interior Ministry accused journalists of slandering servicemen and endangering their lives by publishing secret information about the conflict.

In a nationally televised speech last week, President Boris N. Yeltsin made the unsubstantiated charge that "Chechen money" is behind some mass media in Russia. Despite requests from Russian journalists, Mr. Yeltsin's office has refused to release any evidence to support his charge.

Russian troops posted in Chechnya have greeted some correspondents by firing at their cars or over their heads.

Last week, even as Defense Minister Pavel Grachev was pledging that journalists would now be welcome to visit military units in the field, a correspondent with the Russian television news program Vesti reported that he was shot at by Russian troops.

Vladimir Zhitarenko, a 54-year-old Russian war correspondent, died in the fighting Sunday. Mr. Zhitarenko, a reporter for the army newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda, was the second journalist killed covering the war. American free-lance photographer Cynthia Elbaum, 28, was killed Dec. 22 during a rocket attack on Grozny.

Izvestia, one of Russia's most influential national newspapers, has led the print media by covering Russian involvement in Chechnya when it was a covert intelligence operation.

But television has been the most daring in its coverage. The Independent Television Network, or NTV, has brought the war directly into Russians' homes, drawing comparisons to U.S. television coverage of the Vietnam War. Its footage of bombed-out Grozny, anguished civilians and hapless soldiers has angered the government, which threatened to revoke NTV's license.

News broadcasts on Ostankino, the larger of the two state TV channels, have become a litany of official propaganda. Viewers are assured that the "bandit formations" in Chechnya are being liquidated.

Last month -- coincidentally, insist Ostankino officials -- its 9 p.m. news once again opened with its old Soviet name, "Vremya," and theme music, which had been discarded after the failed 1991 hard-liners' coup against President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad