Publication: Prism Volume: 5 Issue: 20

By Nabi Abdullaev

“Wherever the press center is established, the information ends,” grimly jokes Timur Djafarov, Interfax correspondent in Dagestan, sitting in the hall of the Makhachkala Provisional press center among the other journalists at the daily briefing on the joint federal forces fighting in Chechnya. Although his statement sounds paradoxical, he is, to a great extent, right. The Russian military press centers established in September in Makhachkala, Dagestan, and in Mozdok, North Ossetia, became the ultimate sources of information on the ongoing conflict, and what they disseminate looks increasingly like propaganda, not information.

The problems in covering the current military conflict in Chechnya are mainly technical and logistical. The worst problem is getting access to the places where the conflict is taking place. This mostly concerns the foreign media, given that the Russian journalists are already soured on the Chechen “liberation struggle” and, following the bombing in Russian cities which left more than 300 civilians dead, share (at least, in public) the common view that the Russian military operation in Chechnya is a response to terrorism. This attitude is a comfort to the Russian state authorities.

The first question that the federal officers who guard the Chechen border ask the passengers of vehicles attempting to drive into Chechnya is: ‘Are any of you journalists?’ If the answer is yes, those fitting the description are separated from the other passengers and sent back whence they came. The Russian military authorities generally do not like journalists, whom they consider to be traitors to the interests of Russia and its army. “You should be thankful I am talking to you nicely and not detaining you for appearing here without the representative of our press service,” the paratroopers’ sub-colonel shouted at me when I tried to take photos of the Chechen village of Gerzel, which is now under the control of Russian federal troops.

The Russian authorities learned the lesson of the last military campaign in Chechnya in 1994-1996, when the breakaway republic’s minister of foreign affairs, Movladi Udugov, a former local television-journalist, won the information war against Russia with the help of Russian and international liberal media. He organized a powerful and steady stream of reports about atrocities committed by the Russian army in Chechnya, and aimed it specifically at the international media. Public opinion, particularly in the West, turned against the Russian military campaign and to some extent predetermined Russian forces’ retreat from the rebellious territory. Today the Russian authorities have put information coming from the region under very tight control.

At the beginning of the current conflict, the top officials of Russia’s television channels made the decision not to broadcast interviews with the rebel warlords Shamil Basaev and Khattab. A majority of the federal print media followed suit. The explanation for this decision was that it would hinder terrorist propaganda. Meanwhile, the rebels’ Internet site, Kavkaz-Tsentr (, which is managed by Udugov, was ruined four times by technical specialists from the Russian security services. A group of the Russian hackers headed by “Misha Lermontov” (Mikhail Lermontov was a famous Russian poet who fought the Chechens in the Caucasus more than 150 years ago) are constantly attacking Chechen’s web sites.

“The rebels definitely give biased information on their sites,” said Peter Heinlein, head of Voice of America’s Moscow bureau, “but this is the alternative source to… biased information from the federal side.”

Since September 30, when the Russian government cut off Chechnya’s supply of electricity, the Chechens themselves have been unable to view their own national Kavkaz channel. Representatives of Chechnya’s national media, meanwhile, have been experiencing serious professional problems. “My name disappeared from all the lists of the accredited journalists,’ complained Yesita Arzamazova, the Chechen-Press news agency’s correspondent in Dagestan. The television transmitters used by Basaev’s and Khattab’s supporters in neighboring Dagestan were destroyed by Russian troops at the very start of the fighting in August.

The accreditation cards distributed among the local journalists in September by the Russian military press-service in Dagestan were declared invalid at the beginning of October. To receive accreditation– which provides the formal possibility of getting access to Chechnya–a journalist must apply to the Provisional Press Center of the joint army group in Mozdok, in Northern Ossetia. This cuts the journalists off from regional media outlets, whose management cannot afford to follow all of the administrative restrictions. It also cuts off the international agencies, for whom local journalists often string. Only Russian federal agencies and media outlets can get accreditation, but this doesn’t mean they can go to Chechnya. The press center sits on some applications for weeks. Only national television crews regularly go to the republic, accompanied by officials from the provisional press centers, who control their filming. The only legal way for stringers to get into Chechnya is to ask their local colleagues who work as regional correspondents for the federal television companies to employ them temporarily. The illegal option is to ask the military authorities informally. I know of cases in which this has worked out: One Dagestani journalist was smuggled into Chechnya’s Shelkovskoi region in a truck full of soldiers, and a Kommersant correspondent managed to get into Chechnya with the help of acquaintances who were military helicopter pilots.

In mid-October, Rosinformtsentr (the federal agency intentionally established to provide information on the Chechen conflict) openly offered to organize trips for journalists representing Moscow-based media outlets into the territories of Chechnya occupied by Russian forces. But Rosinformtsentr required the correspondents to sign, in advance, a document absolving the federal authorities from responsibility for their security. The leading international agencies–Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France Presse–withdrew their requests.

The vast majority of foreign journalists are not willing to travel into the region out of fear of being kidnapped. Those who are are considered persona non grata by both the military authorities and the local authorities of neighboring republics. Two correspondents of the French magazine Paris Match spent a fortnight in Dagestan under semilegal status but failed to get into Chechnya. For many it is easier to get to the battlefield from another front line. Voice of America correspondent Peter Heinlein spent two weeks preparing his trip to Djohar, and finally got there only after getting security guarantees from Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov himself.

Under these circumstances, the informational vacuum is being filled by rumor rather than facts. The conspiracy theory involving the alleged relationship between the terrorist Osama bin Laden and the Chechen rebels is one of the most popular in the Western media, though it is impossible to confirm such connections. The opposition Russian media prefers the theory of a conspiracy between rebel Chechen field commander Shamil Basaev and the so-called “Family”–that group of political players united around Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

There are few reports concerning casualties in Chechnya and, as eyewitnesses to the fighting claim, they are usually understated. Most agencies use only officially confirmed information, thus letting only those statistics circulate which the federal troops want circulated. Even the number of troops and equipment deployed in the region is being kept secret, thus it is difficult to calculate federal expenditures for the conflict. With the International Monetary Fund already withholding funds promised to Moscow, and warning that it will not release them if military spending gets out of hand, the issue is becoming sensitive. The refugees from Chechnya are not being given enough air over national television to tell about the situation in their own words. Instead, news programs show Russian soldiers distributing textbooks among Chechen teenagers in occupied villages. Footage showing the suffering of the civilian population shot by Chechen stringers working for Western agencies is rarely seen on federal television. When they are broadcast, they are always accompanied by the skeptical comments of the anchors or reporters.

These policies, for the time being, permit Moscow to handle public opinion nationwide and keep the world in ignorance about what is actually going on in Chechnya. Human rights organizations are not in a position to launch wide protest campaigns, given that most Russians are not fully aware of what they should be protesting against. At the same time, the Russian public is shown many documents and, more important, videotapes concerning atrocities committed by Chechen gangsters, including scenes of hostages being tortured. During Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s visit to Oslo in November, one such video was shown to Western journalists. Similar footage was broadcast on federal television channels several weeks before the Russian incursion to Chechnya.

The dubious and preconceived coverage of the military conflict in Chechnya leads to two diametrically opposed emotional positions. The West focuses mainly on humanitarian issues, while the Russian leadership is adamant that the military campaign is an internal Russian affair and that Moscow must continue the war against the Chechen separatists until Russia is freed of them. These two positions have no common ground and in the last several weeks have caused a deterioration in Russia’s relations with the leading Western countries. Talks between diplomats from the two opposing camps increasingly resemble a dialogue between the deaf and dumb.

In one sense the rebels have gained the upper hand in the information war with Russia: Russia is seen as conducting not only an antiterrorist campaign, but also an anti-Islamic one. A xenophobic anti-Caucasian campaign is going on in Russian cities, in which the local authorities, with the ethnic Russian residents’ approval, torment representatives from traditionally Moslem republics. The Russia vs. Islam dimension of the conflict has had repercussions abroad: Last month, several correspondents from two of Russia’s leading television channels were severely beaten during a congress of Moslem supporters of the Chechen resistance in London.

The skewed media reporting on the Chechen conflict could last a long time. Only the growing number of casualties among Russian soldiers and the cost of the war on the already ailing Russian economy might provoke the public into questioning the dubious coverage. Should this happen, there is reason to fear that that, in order to distract public attention away from the war, those who instigated the war in the first place have something even more terrible in reserve.

Nabi Abdullaev is a journalist based in Makhachkala, Dagestan.