On the beat in battered Grozny

As the world marks Press Freedom Day tomorrow, Chechnya's only remaining paper serves as a lifeline.

The arrival of spring weather and budding leaves in Chechnya brings not the hope of new growth, but the likelihood of stepped-up fighting.

But getting accurate information about Russia's second war there is about as difficult as snowshoeing across Lake Baikal in the middle of winter.

Chechnya is a like a black hole for news, a place where television is rare, because 90 percent of the remaining population has no electricity. Few radios have batteries, but rumors and propaganda - amid such desperate conditions - often take on a life of their own.

So it is also a place where a thin, four-page weekly broadsheet can feed a vast appetite for news. Despite a small print run of only 3,000 copies, Groznensky Rabochy (Grozny Worker) is playing a unique role, as the only newspaper still distributed across the battered republic.

"Today, for the people of Chechnya, we can compare [information] to life and death," says Musa Muradov, the paper's editor, from his threadbare office in Nazran, Ingushetia. "Everybody is sitting and waiting for the news. It is so important if they have a chance to see the TV, or to get a newspaper in their hands."

Like Oslobodenje, the Sarajevo daily that published throughout the war in Bosnia, Groznensky Rabochy's main goal is providing reliable news from a local perspective.

In advance of World Press Freedom Day tomorrow, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in a joint message with other officials, cited the vital role of the free flow ideas "in educating the public and fostering peace and mutual respect among peoples."

Every week, a vehicle crosses into Chechnya packed with hidden copies of the paper.

Getting through the string of Russian checkpoints is a simple matter, according to Mr. Muradov. "If you pay money, you can even take a nuclear bomb through a Russian checkpoint," he says with a knowing smirk.

The Groznensky Rabochy staff was forced to flee offices in Grozny when Russian forces invaded in October 1999, in response to incursions by Chechen insurgents into neighboring republics and a series of still-unsolved bombings that Moscow blames on Chechen extremists.

The now 20-month-old conflict shows no sign of ending, despite periodic Russian claims of victory.

The paper's remaining four-member staff - with modest funding from the Soros Foundation - has set up shop in a bare-bulb, three-room apartment in the Ingush capital, Nazran. They take turns doing one-week reporting rotations in Grozny, and rely on a handful of freelance correspondents.

The risks they incur are those of other Chechens - increasingly the target of harassment, arrest, or worse by harried Russian troops - but are magnified by the work they do. Russian authorities, long angry with the newspaper's accounts of abuses of Chechen civilians, have sought to shut it down.

But the stories of Russian military abuses - which also have been documented by Western and Russian human rights organizations - are even-handed in a way colleagues say is uncommon.

"Groznensky Rabochy is balanced, and gives the freshest news from Chechnya," says Sergei Snopkov, a Russian journalist based in Moscow.

Almost all Russian news outlets adhere to the official Kremlin line that its forces are fighting "terrorists" bent on breaking up the Russian federation and spreading Islamic extremism.

Pro-rebel sources, for their part, paint all Russians, soldiers and civilians alike, as imperialist occupiers who will stop at nothing to keep control of the now-destroyed republic.

"Russian correspondents can't go into the mountains [with the rebels], and the rebels can't go with the Russian military - but these people can do both," says Mr. Snopkov. "Readers have a full picture of what is happening. That's why it sells out so fast," he adds. "The war has caused divisions between Chechens and Russians, but this paper is published in the Russian language. That is very important."

According to Elisa Musaeva, head of the Nazran office of the Russian human rights group, Memorial, many Chechens are "traumatized by the stress" of their lack of information. Conversely, she says,"When people hear any true information, it encourages them."

The utility of Groznensky Rabochy in separating fact from fiction is echoed by some of the tens of thousands of refugees here, who are allotted 500 copies of the weekly. "Pro-Russian Chechen authorities [appointed by Moscow], or the Russians themselves, pay people to come into our camps and spread wrong information," says Roza Saieva, the heavyset head of Nazran's sprawling Kamaz refugee camp and a former Grozny resident. "They say it is 100 percent safe to return, that there are guarantees. But people go there and see something else. Whatever [Russians] do, it's not hidden from us."

"I've read the paper, and it is true information," says Alvi Hikaev, a bookish refugee in Kamaz camp, where Russian state-controlled television is plentiful and nearly every refugee tent is fitted with a makeshift TV antenna. "They confirm - or not - the stories and rumors that we hear from Chechnya."

Impartiality has not always been a priority for Groznensky Rabochy. Founded after the 1917 Russian Revolution, it became Chechnya's Communist Party propaganda sheet. Daily circulation peaked at 140,000 copies, and the masthead still bears the stamp of the Soviet "Order of the Red Flag."

Muradov was elected editor by the paper's journalists with the collapse of Communist rule in 1991, and has pursued a sometimes difficult independent course.

In the aftermath of 1994-'96 war that resulted in Chechnya's de facto independence from Russia, stories about Chechen criminal activities made relations tense with the government of elected President Aslan Maskhadov. "We tried to tell the truth, and the authorities didn't like it," says Muradov.

That dynamic still holds. Last year, he was called in for questioning by Russia's general prosecutor, to explain an interview he did with Mr. Maskhadov, who now directs the guerrilla campaign.

"The most important thing this paper has done since the beginning of the first war was to keep informing people," says Yakub Sultygov, deputy editor of the Ingush state newspaper, Serdalo.

"It has kept its independence always, and in Chechnya that is very difficult."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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