Critics Blame Kremlin for Cautious Media

Times Staff Writer

When a hostage-taking at a school in southern Russia erupted in explosions last month, viewers who rushed to turn on state-run Channel 1 were treated for the next hour to a film, “Lady With a Parrot.” They wouldn’t have fared much better on Channel 2, which stuck to a travelogue.

Instead, many Russians got their news of the events in Beslan, in which more than 330 hostages died, from Echo of Moscow radio, whose anchors were monitoring CNN and BBC television.

“It gave me the creeps to see how the two main television channels of Russia were ignoring the climax of the hostage tragedy in Beslan. We couldn’t take an iota from them,” said Sergei Buntman, the independent radio station’s deputy editor.


However, Russian media apparently didn’t toe the line as thoroughly as they could have.

The Culture and Press Ministry announced earlier this month that it had issued 18 reprimands for unspecified violations of the law on mass media, about a quarter of them connected with coverage of Beslan and other extremist acts. It said a second violation could result in the revocation of an organization’s license.

President Vladimir V. Putin’s envoy to the upper house of parliament, Alexander Kotenkov, called for adoption of a censorship law. “We must think of introducing regulatory, not narrow, censorship. We must clearly say what cannot be published in the mass media,” Kotenkov said. The Kremlin said later that Kotenkov’s comments did not reflect Putin’s views.

The gradual disappearance of independent television in Russia has been widely discussed. The remaining independent media also face regular Kremlin pressure. But only since the recent wave of attacks by Chechen and Ingush extremists has it become clear what state control really means.

During the Beslan crisis, state-run media offered few interviews with the families of hostages. They were slow to report residents’ fury at the government and ignored for days the growing evidence that the number of captives inside the school was not 354, as officials insisted, but more than 1,200. Putin’s absence from the scene throughout the three-day crisis was remarked on not at all.

“How frightened and lost they were, our glorious state television channels,” wrote the establishment Moscow daily Izvestia two days before its editor in chief was fired over the paper’s coverage of the tragedy. “One can imagine how the heads of the state channels were sitting in their offices, watching CNN, receiving reports from their own correspondents and feverishly calling their controllers: ‘Can I show this? If not, what can I show? And what do I say?’ ”

“A tendency toward growing censorship in Russia is obvious to everyone in this country. And this is a problem. If we accept the premise that Russian society is built on the principle of democracy, then we will see how serious the problem is,” said Kirill Poznyakov, anchor of the Segodnya news program on NTV, a private channel, controlled by the state-owned gas company, that aired live footage of the gunfight and storming at the school.

Izvestia’s managing editor, Georgy Bovt, also quit early this month, in part because of a continuing standoff between the newspaper’s owners and the Kremlin after the editor in chief’s firing. He said it was authorities’ natural inclination to “tighten the screws” on a free press.

It is one of many reminders of 70 years of Communist rule that the public -- and the media -- tolerate it. “The weakest point of Russian society is that it is not ready to resist these efforts,” Bovt said.

Poznyakov learned firsthand about media restrictions in October 2002, during the seizure of hundreds of hostages at Moscow’s Dubrovka theater by Chechen rebels. Poznyakov had one of the hostage-takers on the phone live -- until station management cut off the call.

Another prominent television news figure, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Russian television operated on clear orders from the Kremlin. “Obviously, you don’t tell the truth about Chechnya, you don’t tell the truth about the president,” he said. “You don’t tell the truth about [the government’s move to renationalize private] property.”

Alexei Venediktov, Echo of Moscow’s editor in chief, said he got “calls every day” from the Kremlin.

“Prepare for problems,” Putin press secretary Alexei Gromov barked into the phone one day, Venediktov related, alerting the editor that the head of the state pension fund, irate over Echo of Moscow’s discussion of pension reform, had just entered the president’s office and closed the door.

“The conversations are endless,” he said. “They want to know: ‘Why do you pay so much attention to Chechnya? There’s nothing happening there.... Why are you highlighting this person in such a way? It’s a very controversial issue, and we should treat it tactfully.’

“My answer is always the same,” he said, smiling. “For ratings, and for profits.”

Sometimes Venediktov also hears from anonymous callers. “They threaten me. They threaten my child. They say, ‘You are supporting the oligarchs, the people who robbed Russia. Think about your child. Your child who walks here, and there. We will be watching very closely.’ And these are the places where my child really walks.”

“On Russian state TV, you can quite clearly see the presence of undeclared, illegal censorship, along with self-censorship,” said Eduard Sagalayev, president of the National Assn. of Television Broadcasters and a former state TV director.

“During Beslan, I’m talking to [my former colleagues], and I’m saying, ‘I understand you couldn’t say anything about the true number of hostages, but why couldn’t you show the parent holding the sign -- There Are More Than 800? You could have told the Kremlin that the cameraman was to blame -- “It was beyond our control.” You could have fired the cameraman. But show it!’

“And they answered, ‘Eduard, you don’t know who we have to deal with.’ But I know perfectly well who they’re dealing with. And what I’m worried about now is the state of my own colleagues.”

The concern is shared by some government officials. Putin’s economic advisor, Andrei Illarionov, has warned that the fear of censorship could have a disastrous effect on the economy. “A country paralyzed with fear is doomed,” he said.

One correspondent for a state-owned TV channel said reporters are never given specific guidelines but know them almost instinctively. He cited Putin’s recent initiative to end general elections for regional governors.

“The angle should be that it is a totally positive thing, that the constitution allows it perfectly well and that it is not really appointing governors, since they need to be approved by local legislators who are elected by the general public,” he said.

Even inexperienced journalists seem to know, the correspondent said, “when they do an assignment and ... you ask them about their interviews, they give you an already-censored version of what the interviewees told them. You get a feeling that this self-censorship is already hard-wired in their minds.”

At Beslan, he said, management ordered staff not to show close-ups of corpses or broadcast the hostage-takers’ demands.

“We were advised against showing crying relatives of the hostages. Our bosses thought it was wrong to focus too much on human tragedies and people swallowed up in grief and despair,” he said.

As the Beslan hostage-taking reached a climax, both state channels stuck with regular programming for about an hour, before switching to news. Channel 1 had about 10 minutes before returning to its regular programs; Channel 2 broadcast the Beslan story for about an hour.

Sagalayev and well-known television critic Irina Petrovskaya sponsored a letter of protest that was presented at the Academy of Russian Television’s 10th annual awards on Sept. 24. The top three awards that night went to shows that were axed earlier this year, apparently because of Kremlin irritation.

“Russian television today is not free,” the letter said. “Instead of timely and objective information, they try to force us to report the official version; instead of free discussion, there is propaganda.” Only 28 of 130 broadcasters signed the communique, Sagalayev said.

“Of course, no one will say he’s scared,” he said. “But there’s one way to determine this: It’s the flood of hatred on the part of my colleagues which was showered down on me at that moment. They said I was looking for cheap popularity.”

Sagalayev believes Putin doesn’t trust the media -- or the public.

“You can’t treat the people who elected you like children. He thinks they’re children. He thinks voters cannot be given real rights because look what they did with their voting rights, they elected [a bunch of criminals] as governors and mayors. They can’t even be allowed to handle a matchbox, because they will set everything on fire.

“I’m trying to bring it home to him that you need to be brave enough to talk to people. That’s what TV was created for. God handed it to people and to the authorities to talk to each other.”


Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko and Alexei V. Kuznetsov of The Times’ Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.