There have been numerous reports in recent weeks about the Russian government’s efforts to control information. The August explosion at the Sayano-Shushenskaya hydroelectric power station, the cargo and whereabouts of the merchant ship Artic Sea, and the discussion of Soviet participation in World War II are flagrant examples, and those who have challenged the official narrative have suffered. In this context, a 2004 report on Russia Media Coverage of the Beslan Tragedy, whose 5th anniversary was September 1, is striking as an early account of what have become the Russian government’s standard rules of engagement toward the press.
, produced for the OSCE by the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations of the Russian Union of Journalists, declares with considerable ambiguity that, “Most of the problems that journalists faced came from local residents who began to treat the press aggressively after Russian state TV channels only reported official information about the number of hostages.” It then catalogs the official decisions that produced the misinformation – and the rage.
Guidelines for the media drawn up after the 2002 seige of Moscow’s Nord-Ost Theatre, and the calamitous government rescue that followed, were distributed as an advisory to the Russian press. Senior officials of North Ossetia held a briefing to instruct journalists “not to report information of unfolding events to their editorial offices for some time” and to “coordinate their materials with the crisis center.” Discrepancies between official and media reports on numbers of hostages were constant, and only after Beslan parents threatened to release their own lists did Alexander Dzashohov, the North Ossetian president, state that over 900 hostages were being held in the school. Only after the press reported over a thousand hostages did the authorities acknowlege such numbers. State TV channels circulated guidelines for content to their staffs, including instructions not to mention President Vladimir Putin in their coverage.
In addition to the impact such measures had on message, the report also documents the impact that the message had on unfolding events. It speculates that the distorted coverage actually radicalized the terrorists, who watched the news on tv in the school. Novaya Gazeta
reported one case where they took out their anger on the children by refusing them tap water.
Attacks against the press accelerated after forces under the Ministry for Emergency Situations stormed the school on September 3. Local residents were enraged by conflicting information about hostages and beat up TV crews whom they suspected of lying. Some journalists believed that authorities deliberately fed the media false numbers to deflect public rage toward them. Members of the militia and security services harassed reporters and confiscated their cameras, recording equipment and tapes. Correspondents from Novye Izvestia
, Moskovskii Komsomolets
, Novaya Gazeta
and The Moscow Times
The report documents three cases of journalists that have become iconic in the chronicle of the Beslan tragedy. (CPJ.org
) First is the possible poisoning of Novaya Gazeta
correspondent Anna Politkovskaya, who was on a Karat airlines flight en route to Beslan on September 3 to cover the events. It also cites the case of RFE/RL correspondent Andrei Babitsky, who was detained on September 2 at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport before boarding a plane to the North Caucasus town of Mineralnye Vody. Babitsky was accused of transporting explosives; although the claims were soon dismissed, he was subsequently forced to undergo a medical exam and was sentenced to 15 days in prison before being released on September 5.
Finally, the report covers the case of Raf Shakirov
, editor of Izvestia
, who was fired on September 6 after publishing a poster-sized photograph of a wounded Beslan child on the first and last pages of the paper. In an interview
with Rosbalt news agency three days earlier, Shakirov reflected on the role of the media during the previous days. “The media drew the right conclusions from the Nord-Ost events and now they deliver considerably less information concerning the attack on Beslan.”