THE International Federation of Journalists, the world's largest journalists' organisation, today condemned government guidelines for media in Russia which they warn amounts to interference with media coverage of Chechen militants.
"The Government should keep its hands out of the newsroom," said Aidan White, IFJ General Secretary. "Media and journalists are only too well aware of the horrifying consequences of terrorism and they don't need lectures from politicians about how to tailor their coverage to suit the public interest."
The IFJ says that similar attempts to influence the United States media after the September 11 events illustrate that government enthusiasm to manipulate the media message over terrorism borders on unacceptable interference.
The press ministry issued the draft guidelines 10 days after the Chechen hostage siege in a Moscow theatre came to a bloody end. It asked the media not to interview militants involved in such attacks or allow them airtime to voice their grievances.
"Saving people is more important than society's right to information," the ministry said in guidelines for covering emergencies. The guidelines are not binding on the press, but were issued after the lower house of parliament passed tough new laws limiting how journalists write about militant groups.
The IFJ challenges the Russian authorities, warning that people need to be informed about what is happening and journalists themselves should be left to make editorial decisions about media content. "Any interference, no matter how well intentioned can open the door to unacceptable pressure and censorship," said Aidan White.
The Kremlin has been angered by media reports suggesting it failed to pursue talks with the guerrillas before launching a raid which left almost 120 hostages and up to 50 rebels dead. The hostages were killed by a gas intended to knock out the rebels.
The guidelines also warn journalists that militant statements on television and radio could contain secret messages - a similar claim was made by United States leaders last year, but this was largely dismissed as scaremongering.
During the three-day siege which ended on October 26, authorities banned the NTV channel from publishing a statement from guerrilla leader Movsar Barayev. When the Moscow-based Ekho Moskvy radio station broadcast a brief interview on October 24 with one of the gunmen in the theater, Media Ministry spokesman Yuri Akinshin warned media outlets not to air statements from the hostage-takers. Ekho Moskvy editor-in-chief Aleksei Venediktov confirmed that the station had received a warning.
Journalists should avoid publishing confidential information on special forces or information that could help guerrillas, the guidelines said.
The hostage standoff in central Moscow has highlighted growing restrictions on the Russian media, including this week's passage of legislation banning "propaganda of terrorism" in mass media. Although the legislation has not become law, the government is already using it to censor coverage of the hostage crisis.
A large group of heavily armed Chechen rebels seized some 700 people in a Moscow theater on October 23, demanding that Russian troops pull out of the war-torn region of Chechnya in southern Russia. The Qatar-based satellite television channel Al-Jazeera broadcast statements from the gunmen after a videocassette was dropped off at its Moscow bureau.
On October 23, just hours before the hostage crisis began, the State Duma voted overwhelmingly-259 to 34 with two abstentions-to broaden legal restrictions on news coverage of statements issued by terrorists and about anti-terrorist operations, widely referred to as the "Law on Battling Propaganda of Terrorism in Mass Media."
The bill, which was under consideration months before the hostage crisis began, bans the media from printing or broadcasting an array of vaguely defined topics, including information that justifies extremist activities, justifies resistance to counter-terrorist operations, hinders counter-terrorist operations, and reveals anti-terrorist tactics. The bill has yet to be approved by the upper house of Parliament and signed by President Vladimir Putin before it officially becomes law.
According to Russian press reports, the hostage-takers specifically requested that a prominent journalist who has covered human rights violations in Chechnya be among a team of negotiators. Anna Politkovskaya, a war correspondent for the Moscow newspaper Novaya Gazeta, along with doctors and Red Cross officials, entered the theater several times to deliver emergency supplies and attempt to negotiate the release of the hostages.