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Russia uses KGB playbook on press

Reporters covering Beslan say they were drugged by officials.

By / September 21, 2004


Like scores of her colleagues, Georgian television journalist Nana Lezhava reported on the terrorist school seizure at Beslan.

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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."

Media fallout from Beslan

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.