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Getting the Story Right -- In Chechnya

(Washington, DC--December 24, 2003) A war correspondent who has covered events in the Caucasus since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 cautioned an RFERL audience last week that reporters should "take responsibility" for their stories, particularly those filed under difficult war-time conditions such as those in Chechnya today.

Thomas Goltz, a freelance journalist and author of a number of books about the countries and peoples of the Caucasus, expressed concern about the difficulty of reporting factually and objectively from Chechnya since the "9/11" al-Qaida attacks against the United States. Goltz cited a front page story of The New York Times in December 9, 2001 concerning events in the region of Urus Martan near the Georgian-Russian border which he had visited in October 1999 at the time the events in the article had allegedly taken place. The Times story purported to document an event that the newspaper's reporter had not witnessed, yet asserted that "a group of militant Muslims had established a paramilitary beachhead inside Chechnya." The story claimed that "two Brits and an Arab" had driven "two brawny Mitsubishi four wheel drive vehicles" into guerrilla territory for purposes of "helping the Chechens."

Goltz said that the reporter and his editor should be asked "why"...[they]..."chose to spin that story or take that nugget of information and cast it in that direction," without adequate sourcing, since he himself was sure that the foreigners described in the article were members of the British-based de-mining organization, Halo Trust, who were trying to extract their volunteers from Chechnya. "This was a 'small fact' lost in the fight to make the connecting link between Osama bin Landen and Chechnya," Goltz said.

He acknowledged that "in terms of general reporting, it's real tough," in Chechnya because the Russian military so thoroughly controls the territory that male reporters not on a "Russian military junket" risk harsh interrogation if captured by the Russian military. "Reporting out of Chechnya has literally became women's work," Goltz said, because the Russian military doesn't scrutinize female journalists as closely as they do male journalists. He said that the Russian government has made it clear that foreign newspapers "risk having your bureau in Moscow closed down," if you try to cover the Russian war in Chechnya independently. "It has to be freelance; it has to be obscure," advised Goltz based on his own experiences covering the war.

In his most recent book, "Chechnya Diary" (St. Martins Press, 2003), Goltz describes the events he witnessed in the Russian-Chechen war including the massacre of over 200 men, women and children in the small village of Samashki on April 7, 1995 -- "the My Lai of Chechnya," Goltz said, that "is the symbol of Russian brutality" in this war, and became the "signature of destruction of the Russian Army" in Chechnya.

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