MOSCOW — FIVE days after Russian President Boris Yeltsin dispatched his troops into the rebel republic of Chechnya on Dec. 11, the Soviet-era nightly news program ``Vremya,'' known as the official mouthpiece of state propaganda, was back on the air.
Editors at the state-run Ostankino television station say the timing was merely a coincidence. But the program's airing coincided with a concerted Kremlin campaign to reassert control over both Russian and foreign news media covering the war in Chechnya. (West reacts to war, Page 20.)
Old habits die hard, as recent events in post-Communist Russia show. Moscow's tactics to harness the media have ranged from warning journalists to leave Chechnya's capital, Grozny, because their ``safety cannot be guaranteed,'' to seizing tapes of footage from the war there.
More chilling, some Western television teams believe Russian Spetsnaz commandos or undercover former KGB agents shot at their cars near Grozny. And earlier this week, a BBC camera crew in Chechnya was arrested by the Russian Army and held overnight.
``There is a big government campaign to prevent journalists from receiving full information, and a tendency to deliver the kind of information that is good for the government,'' says Olga Karabanova of the Glasnost Defense Fund. ``Russian journalists have the possibility to deliver independent information,'' she adds, ``but it is difficult and dangerous.''
A veteran Russian war reporter for the Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star) military newspaper and a photographer from the United States have been killed.
Through political miscalculation, President Yeltsin, Defense Minister Pavel Grachev, and other Kremlin higher-ups believed their quest to oust separatist leader Gen. Dzhokhar Dudayev - or to ``disarm illegal armed bands'' and ``liberate'' the Chechen people, as official rhetoric puts it - would be a quick victory.
But the longer the conflict drags on, the shakier the Kremlin leadership's political future becomes. Most independent news media have succeeded in conveying the war's horrors.
Their coverage is a far cry from that of the war in Afghanistan, when Russians received news only when their sons were shipped home in zinc coffins. Action footage was shown only after former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985.
But though the Russian government is not controlling independent media as much as the Soviet government controlled all media during the Afghanistan era, it is trying to influence coverage.
``Lies are disgusting,'' Presidential Council member Marietta Chudakova wrote in an attack on Yeltsin in the daily Izvestia. ``But lies on behalf of democratic authorities are unbearable.''
A Moscow-based Western diplomat says Russian authorities are ``frustrated by the extent they feel international opinion has moved against them as a result of what they see as tendentious pro-Dudayev reporting.''
To counteract that frustration, he says, it has issued ``implausible'' reports claiming the Chechens fired their own missiles at Grozny, or employed chemical weapons against advancing Russian troops.
``My feeling is that there is a grain of truth grossly exaggerated for propaganda effect,'' the diplomat says. ``They [the Russians] are not so stupid as to fabricate something entirely. They are looking for propaganda opportunities and are blowing up any promising grains that come their way.''
The Russian government vehemently denies bias, although it did consider revoking the license of the Independent Television network (NTV) after it broadcast reports unfavorable to the Russian leadership, according to the Western diplomat.
The authorities were also not amused when a Western satellite dish and TV crews arrived in Grozny, days before advancing troops. The Russians eventually hinted they could bomb the hotel in which the dish was located, forcing journalists to relocate.
``We publish all information, whether it is good or bad. So I am not offended in any way by accusations of bias,'' says Valentin Sergeyev, head of the government press center.
Yeltsin himself, in a nation-wide address on Dec. 27 following weeks of silence, accused several Russian publications of ``functioning not without the participation of Chechen money.''
Russian officials could not back up the claims, although Yeltsin certainly was not referring to the government-run Rossiiskaya Gazeta, which recently advertised it was being distributed to the troops.
Most Russians have access only to state television, except in big cities. Similarly, foreign cable broadcasts, and independent Russian and foreign publications are difficult to obtain outside Moscow and St. Petersburg.
``Russians are indifferent to what is happening in Chechnya, and are ready to accept the official government information as the final truth,'' says Vitaly Portnikov of Nezavisimaya Gazeta (Independent Newspaper). ``I believe Chechnya is a kind of litmus test for the authorities to examine how far they can go.''