The Russian military has imposed new restrictions on the movement of journalists in Chechnya. Journalists may now move outside Khankala, the main Russian military base in the republic, only if accompanied by a military press officer (see the Monitor, July 27; see also Chechnya Weekly, July 31). Over the last half a year or so, journalists were relatively free to leave the military base, as long as they had been given permission to do so from the republican administration or government, the local branch of the Emergency Situations Ministry or other structures involved in restoration work in the republic. Among other things, journalists have expressed doubts that the Russian military’s press office has enough officers to accompany correspondents on their travels around the republic, particularly in areas where the military is not active (Itar-Tass, July 26).
The real issue, however, is not whether the military has enough press officers to accompany journalists, but that it has decided to return to a policy of total news management in the breakaway republic. A year ago, the Monitor’s correspondent experienced the limitations imposed at the time on all journalists working in Chechnya. The restrictions would actually begin in Moscow, where Rosinformcenter–essentially the government’s propaganda agency for Chechnya–gathered journalists wishing to travel to the republic and organized them into large groups. Once in Chechnya, individual reporters were not allowed to break off from these groups. In addition, journalists did not have the right to choose what they reported on on or to leave the Khankala military base at their own initiative. The military, of course, justified these limitations on the grounds of the journalists’ own safety. Most journalists viewed the organized trips around Chechnya as part of a deliberate and carefully designed effort to show that all was going well in the military campaign and that Chechnya was being “reborn.” During the last half a year, however, the control over journalists in Chechnya became somewhat less monolithic, thanks largely to the desire of the republic’s pro-Moscow administration to give its own assessment of what was going on, independent of the military.
That laxity, it seems, has now come to an end, and the military has again decided to exert total control over journalists working in Chechnya. The military’s hostility toward the press is rooted in the belief held by many of Russia’s generals that the press was against them during the 1994-1996 military campaign–a belief not borne out by the facts. First, antimilitary reporting during the first Chechen campaign began only after the army’s disastrous failed attempt to storm Djohar [Grozny] on New Year’s Eve, 1994. Second, the reporting that followed that military disaster may have been antimilitary, but it was not, as many generals claim, pro-rebel.
Whatever the case, it is becoming obvious that the less effective the military is on the battlefield, the more it steps up its activities against the press. Meanwhile, the New-York based Committee to Protect Journalists has condemned the revived restrictions on journalists working in Chechnya. “This is only the latest action in a systematic effort on the part of Russian authorities to restrict independent reporting on Chechnya,” said Ann Cooper, the committee’s executive director. “Russian authorities should demonstrate their expressed commitment to press freedom by allowing journalists in Chechnya to work freely, without official interference” (Cpj.org, July 27).
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