Media bias on Chechnya

The maxim that truth is the first casualty of war has taken on new meaning in the conflict in Chechnya. Russian journalists and Western observers have expressed concern throughout the seven-month war about restrictions on media coverage, while Moscow has leveled charges of bias and distortion.

The media wars have renewed animosities and contributed to mistrust that is likely to color US-Russian relations and influence global security long after the present conflict is forgotten.

Western journalists have claimed that the popularity in Russia of the war - which, despite the Russian capture of the capital Grozny, grinds on with sporadic skirmishes between Russian troops and Chechen rebels - is due to official repression and manipulation of the Russian media.

Western reporters also counter the Russian version of the war by focusing on the brutality of the Russian military in Chechnya: indiscriminate bombing by Russian forces, civilian deaths, suffering of Chechen refugees, and massive human rights abuses. And American commentators observe that a country with democratic aspirations must permit its citizens to get the full story.

But has anyone really gotten the full story?

Our view of the war - based on travel and research in Russia and the Caucasus - suggests not.

After Chechnya won de facto independence from Russia in 1996, kidnapping for ransom - along with auto theft, livestock rustling, and the systematic bleeding of petroleum pipelines - became the lawless, war-shattered region's primary economy.

The hostage-taking drove all international relief and human rights organizations out of the region by the end of 1997.

And Westerners weren't the only targets of kidnapping. More than 1,300 Russian civilians - men, women, children, Christian, Muslim, light-skinned, dark-skinned - have been held in Chechen cellars under exceptionally brutal conditions.

But it wasn't until Chechen-based Islamic militants invaded the southern Rus-sian republic of Dagestan that Russia returned to Chechnya with troops and artillery. The insurgent attacks left more than 1,500 dead and and displaced 32,000 Dagestani residents, many of whom are still homeless.

Dagestan sympathized with Chechnya during the 1994-96 war - taking in 130,000 Chechen refugees into private homes.

But today, as a result of its more recent bitter experience with Chechnya, Dagestan accepts no Chechen refugees. Whereas Dagestanis previously considered Chechens their ethnic and Islamic brethren, they now support the Russian military in its campaign against Chechnya.

We in the West are naive to think that the choice in the Caucasus is between the massive human rights abuses committed by Russians in Chechnya and no human rights abuses. The real choice is between the current Russian abuses and the massive abuses previously committed by Chechen groups in Dagestan and other areas near the Chechen border.

If Russia does not succeed in imposing law and order in Chechnya, people living near Chechnya will be tortured and murdered once again.

That's how people in the region see it.

Westerners see it differently, and Western media support the existing frame of reference as surely as they ignore that of the Russians. The result is that westerners get the information they expect about the daily shootout and the human drama that results. But they aren't informed about the broader context of the war with all of its complexities.

For example, how many Western media outlets reported that on Feb. 7 the supreme Islamic leader of Chechnya, Mufti Akhmed Khadzhi Kadyrov, said the occupation of Chechnya by Russian troops is necessary to protect the people from violent civil strife at the hands of Chechnya's warlords? The answer is zero.

Once established, this lopsided view has a tendency to reinforce itself. For example, while many human rights organizations have interviewed Chechen refugees, none of those organizations have interviewed Dagestani refugees or victims of the kidnapping industry.

Human rights organizations dutifully confirm media accounts about displaced Chechens, and establish a Western truth in which Dagestani refugees are invisible.

In Russia and in the West, each of two separate and opposing sides of the story comes to be accepted as the whole truth.

The result is that no one gets a balanced view, rhetoric intensifies, and security relations deteriorate as everyone lapses into obsolete prejudices about the other side.

Russians and Americans end up inhabiting opposing world views, each of which is seductively credible because of its self-sustaining partiality.

*Robert Bruce Ware is assistant professor of philosophical studies at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville. He conducts field research in the northeast Caucasus. Ira Straus is US coordinator of the Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO. In 1997-98 he was a Fulbright professor of political and international studies in Moscow.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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