Russia uses KGB playbook on press
Reporters covering Beslan say they were drugged by officials.
MOSCOW — Like scores of her colleagues, Georgian television journalist Nana Lezhava reported on the terrorist school seizure at Beslan.
But her coverage ended in arrest by the FSB, Russia's security service once known as the KGB. Tests show she was drugged during interrogation - one of several incidents that are raising questions about Russian handling of the media.
Officials have acknowledged deliberately downplaying hostage and casualty numbers. A top newspaper editor in Moscow has been fired for "emotional" coverage; even one of Russia's state-controlled TV broadcasters has complained of lack of truth. And two known Kremlin critics were prevented from reaching Beslan at all, by KGB-style methods.
"When Nana was interrogated by FSB officials, she was offered a cup of coffee," says Tudu Kurtgelia, head of news for Georgia's Rustavi-2 TV. "She was told they added some cognac to the coffee and she lost her senses. She doesn't remember anything, and only came to a day later, in hospital."
Hundreds of miles away, on a flight from Moscow to get to the Beslan hostage scene, journalist Anna Politkovskaya asked for tea from a stewardess. After drinking it she lost consciousness, and upon landing was taken to a hospital.
"Somebody did not want me to reach Beslan," says Ms. Politkovskaya, a writer for Novaya Gazeta and frequent critic of Moscow's policy in Chechnya, who - because of her contacts with the relatively "moderate" rebel faction of Aslan Maskhadov - had played a mediating role in a previous siege.
In this case, Politkovskaya was on the phone constantly at the airport, perhaps raising official eyebrows as she tried to convince those close to the at-large former Chechen president to intervene in the hostage crisis. "We have old Byzantine traditions to eliminate unwanted people," says Politkovskaya. "Even a hint from a top official to his subordinates is sometimes enough for them to act."
The two suspected drug cases are part of the media fallout from Beslan, where at least 330 people died, half of them children. While many journalists were able to report the events relatively unhindered, analysts say the stream of official misinformation, incidents of harassment, and suspected druggings have set a new precedent in attempts to control the media.
A nationwide poll of nearly 2,000 Russians found that 85 percent felt they were not receiving the full story; nearly 20 percent said they were constantly being deceived. The irreverent print media - the least controlled format in the country - poured scorn on official versions of events.
Official information was often contradictory or wrong. Initially, aides to President Vladimir Putin listed hostage-takers' demands; later officials said there were none. The precise figure of 354 hostages was clung to, even as locals said more than 1,200 people were captive.
"A triple credibility gap arose, between the government and the media, between the media and the citizens, and between the government and the people," notes a report by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe issued last Thursday. "This is a serious drawback for democracy."
Kommersant-Vlast magazine listed some of the guidelines to limit what the press could and couldn't report. At NTV, for example, a "semiofficial document" was circulated early in the Beslan crisis, demanding media self-censorship on everything from troops deployed to names and nationalities of witnesses, relatives, and even hostages.
The words "special operation" was prohibited, as was "shahid" [suicide martyr] - a word that, along with the phrase "war in Chechnya," has already been prohibited on state TV for a year. Forbidden, too, were listing of hostage-takers' demands and interviews with hostage relatives. Analysis of options to save the hostages, of steps already taken, or reasons for the crisis was also forbidden.
The impact was felt even at Rossiya TV, considered the Kremlin's mouthpiece, which acknowledged government deception. "At such moments, society needs to know the truth," Rossiya news anchor Sergei Brilyov announced on air, blaming "generals, the military, and civilians" who refuse to act "until the president gives them the order."
These attempts to control the media are sparking a debate in Russia about the role of the media as acts of terror unfold - a debate that raged in October 2002 after Chechens seized a Moscow theater and 800 hostages. Later, broadcasters voluntarily agreed to a list of self-censorship restrictions.
Some critics argue that full disclosure of the facts can be dangerous. "I think this is the kind of lie that saves lives," says Alexei Pankin, editor of Sreda magazine. "I take it for granted that [authorities] are not competent, and I know that attacking them and revealing they are lying will not make them any better, only more frustrated."
Journalists have a broader responsibility, too, Mr. Pankin says. The terrorist "objective is to intimidate ... by the sheer scope of villainy," he wrote in a recent editorial. "They are the only ones with an interest in the broadest and fullest coverage of the catastrophe; they murder people precisely in order to get on TV screens and newspaper pages."
That view differs from results of one call-in poll Friday of more than 3,000 by Ekho Moskvy, Russia's last independent radio broadcaster. Some 85 percent believe that an uncensored press helps battle terror.
"The authorities were hysterical after the [Beslan] terrorist acts, so they vented their anger on harmless journalists," says Oleg Panfilov, head of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations. "But Rus- sian journalists didn't seem to learn how to resist."
Among those who did is Raf Shakirov, the former chief editor of Izvestia, who was forced to resign after the crisis. The paper's critical reporting culminated in a powerful day-after issue: The front-page was covered by an image of a rescuer carrying a near-naked schoolgirl; on the back page, one photo of a woman grieving as she touched the head of a dead child.
"I was reproached for coverage that was too emotional, and I was told I should not traumatize people," says Mr. Shakirov. "Wasn't it more harmful to ignore information or give wrong information? When they gave wrong figures and said terrorists gave no demands, wasn't it a threat to hostages' lives? No doubt it was."
The media debate is already shifting into Russian politics, where some State Duma deputies want to block press talk of terrorist attacks at all.
"We should make sure that the media do not facilitate terrorist activity and all means are good for this," Lyubov Sliska, a ranking Duma deputy told one newspaper. "We should not be afraid of the suppression of freedom of speech, the suppression of democracy."
• Monitor Moscow staffer Olga Podolskaya contributed to this report.