The story Russians don't see in Chechnya

With media under tight control, the public has heard little of civilian casualties

When a powerful explosion killed 140 people at an open-air market in Chechnya late last week, the world was quickly shown scenes of the carnage and told that Russian missiles, perhaps aimed at the nearby presidential palace, were responsible.

But Russian TV audiences saw almost none of the devastation done to civilians. For several days, a parade of military officials and pro-government analysts have explained that Chechen rebel gangs fighting among themselves in an "arms bazaar" set off the fatal blast.

As Russian troops put a hammerlock on Grozny - the latest reports say Russian tanks are closing in on the Chechen capital - support here remains remarkably high for a military campaign in a place that just three years ago was an unmitigated disaster.

Tight government control of the media's war coverage helps explain the unusual tolerance for mounting casualties on both sides.

In the 1994-96 civil war, for example, the Russian media traveled to Chechnya and tried to cover both sides in an objective and critical way.

Now, the government is not allowing journalists - either domestic or foreign - to travel to the war zone. In fact, it has closed the borders and is not allowing people to travel in either direction. Chechen rebels had brought two tours of foreign journalists in earlier in October, but all but a few have been forced to leave.

So most Russian journalists here covering the current campaign in Chechnya seem content to be little more than megaphones for the official line.

Foreign news outlets report indiscriminate bombardment of Chechen population zones - a Reuters cameraman reported seeing funerals for 27 civilians in the village of Serzhen-Yurt on Sunday. But Russian journalists see a surgical campaign - la NATO precision airstrikes on Serbia - that hits only "bandit and terrorist" bases.

Floods of fleeing refugees

While international aid groups warn the flood of refugees from the war zone is reaching crisis proportions, the Russian press writes glowingly of displaced Chechens resettling in the "liberated areas" of Chechnya under the brotherly protection of Russian troops.

And despite a long tradition of healthy distrust for official versions, many Russians appear surprisingly ready to believe what their media are telling them.

"Compared with the last Chechen war, I think we are getting a very balanced and detailed picture from our TV," says pensioner Igor Phillipov. "Maybe there's some censorship, to protect the lives of our boys fighting down there, but on the whole I think it's a very accurate picture."

When told that Western journalists on the ground in Grozny reported last week's market massacre as the result of a missile attack, and that pieces of a Russian rocket had been displayed on foreign TV, Mr. Phillipov snorts.

"Of course they want to say that Russians did it, that Russians are murdering civilians," he says. "Anyone can fabricate a few pictures. The West is siding with the bandits, because they want to keep Russia weak. They don't want to see Russia pull itself together and become strong again".

For the past three weeks, Russian forces have pounded Chechen military and economic targets, and federal troops have gradually drawn a tight ring around Grozny.

Western journalists who have made it through Russian lines into the embattled rebel capital report savage and indiscriminate bombardment of Chechen civilian targets as well, including last week's mass tragedy in Grozny's central market.

Prime Minister updates EU officials

Yesterday, the war's key architect, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin reported to President Boris Yeltsin on his meetings with European Union officials in Helsinki at the weekend.

"We gave exhaustive explanations [about the conflict in Chechnya], which satisfied the participants of the Helsinki meetings," Mr. Putin said.

That hardly jibes with Western news accounts of the conference, which described European Union leaders as expressing deep concern to Putin about the conflict's mounting civilian toll and urging him to seek a political settlement.

Opinion polls show Russians consistently support the war, and its prime author - Putin. In one recent survey, reported by the official ITAR-Tass agency, his public approval rating was listed as 65 percent.

As usual, Tass explained few of the poll's parameters, and gave no margin of error, which invites skepticism. Still, most of a dozen Muscovites stopped in a random street survey yesterday seemed to support its general finding.

"Something had to be done about terrorism," says Tatiana Kuryakina, a school teacher. "People were dying in Moscow, just as they have been dying in Chechnya for years. Putin took the problem in hand. Anyone can see he's doing a good job"

Attacks tied to apartment bombings?

Nearly 300 Russians died in a series of terrorist apartment bombings in September. Moscow authorities blamed the blasts on Chechen rebels, though no one has yet been charged.

"One big difference from the last Chechen war is that people feel personally threatened because of those apartment bombings," says Vassily Lipetsky, an analyst with the Fund for Political Realism, an independent think tank.

"Fear can bring out the worst in people. They are ready to turn a blind eye to what is being done in Chechnya, as long as they believe it makes them safe"

But a key difference from the previous conflict is the radical shift in press coverage.

"It remains to be seen whether the Russian military has learned from its tactical mistakes in the last war and will fight more intelligently this time," says Galina Kovalskaya, a reporter who covers the Caucasus for the independent weekly Itogi news magazine.

"But one lesson they have definitely learned: control the press. They have clamped the lid on so tight that almost no negative information seeps through,"Ms. Kovalskaya says.

She adds that the Russian army issues accreditations only to journalists of proven loyalty, and no one else is allowed anywhere near the war zone. "They have a list of acceptable people, and those are the ones who go," she says. "It's that simple."

Analysts say the Chechens are partly to blame for the one-sidedness of the Russian media. Since the last war an epidemic of kidnappings by Chechen gangs made the tiny republic a virtual no-go zone for Russians and foreigners.

A team of Russian journalists with the independent NTV, headed by award-winning war correspondent Yelena Masiuk, were held by Chechen captors for almost a year before being released in 1997 in exchange for an undisclosed ransom.

Russian TV journalists banned

Today, NTV is broadcasting nothing but carefully crafted reports of devoted federal troops helping civilians and fighting bandits, only from the Russian side of the line.

"Television is forming public opinion, but it is also reflecting it," says Andrei Kortunov, director of the Moscow Scientific Fund, an independent think tank.

"As long as the public doesn't want to hear anything unpleasant about Chechnya, the media will oblige them, he says. "On one hand we are told absurd things - such as those Chechens in the marketplace blew themselves up - but on the other hand we believe them."That will end when people start to feel a need for truth. There are plenty of sources of independent information, if people want to hear it."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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