Russia considers limiting coverage of anti-terrorist operations

Judith Ingram

MOSCOW – Russian legislators passed amendments Friday that would sharply curb
news coverage of anti-terrorist operations and prohibit the media from carrying
rebel statements — a legislative step officials called increasingly urgent in
light of last week’s hostage crisis.

The hostage-takers “had elaborated a media plan,” Press Minister Mikhail
Lesin said in an interview published in the Izvestia daily Friday.

“They were very well prepared from the point of view of the Russian mass
media, journalists and newsmakers. And they used this situation very well.”

RESPONSIBILITY CLAIMED

A Chechen Web site, meanwhile, published what it claimed to be a statement in
which the main Chechen rebel leader, Shamil Basayev, assumed responsibility for
directing the theatre raid. Moscow has alleged that he planned the attack with
the approval of rebel Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov. The authenticity of the claim was impossible to verify. A spokesman for the Kremlin information office on Chechnya refused to comment.

Basayev excoriated the international community for commiserating with Russia
but not the Chechen victims of the war. He said the Chechens would continue to
carry the war into Russia, and that subsequent attacks would not aim at taking
hostages but at “exacting maximum harm to the enemy.”

RESIGNATION OFFERED

Basayev also said he was resigning from all the posts he held under Maskhadov
and apologized to the Chechen president for not informing him of the planned
Moscow raid. That would seem to support the claim of Maskhadov aide Akhmed
Zakayev, who said the president had not known about the planned attack.

The lower house of parliament gave preliminary approval to the amendments —
one to a law on terrorism and the other to a media law — on Oct. 23, just hours before dozens of heavily armed attackers burst into a Moscow theatre and took more than 800 people hostage. Special forces stormed the theatre three days later, killing 41 of the attackers. At least 119 of the hostages died, the vast majority felled by a fentanyl compound that troops used to incapacitate the terrorists.

Up to 172 former hostages, including six children, remained hospitalized
Friday, said Lyubov Zhomova, a spokeswoman for the Moscow health committee. Some
479 have been discharged, she said.

The new amendments were approved by a vote of 231-106, with one abstention.
The changes, which must still be approved by the upper house and signed by
President Vladimir Putin, would prohibit the media from distributing information
that hinders counter-terrorist operations or reveals information about security
forces and tactics.

The measures also would ban the publication or broadcast of “statements by
individuals that are aimed at hindering a counter-terrorist operation and/or
justifying resistance to a counter-terrorist operation” and other “propaganda or
justification of extremist activity.”

IRRESPONSIBLE JOURNALISTS

Speaking in favour of the amendments on Friday, centrist legislator
Vyacheslav Volodin said that “the journalistic community should take more
responsibility.”

“Things should not be allowed to be taken too far,” he said.

STIFLING DEBATE

But human rights activists said the new law could further stifle debate and
coverage of the war in Chechnya — and keep Russians from being informed about
the conflict.

“Everything we’re discussing here today can now fall under the rubric of
hindering a counter-terrorist operation,” said Oleg Panfilov, director of the
Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, who took part in a human rights
forum Friday on Russia’s conduct during the hostage crisis.

“This may be the last time we can talk about this,” he warned.