Russia considers limiting news coverage of anti-terrorist operations

JUDITH INGRAM, Associated Press Writer

Russian lawmakers 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.”

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 theater 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 that 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.”

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 theater and took
more than 800 people hostage. Special forces stormed the theater 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.”

Speaking in favor 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.

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.

Coverage of the war in Chechnya is already severely restricted, and it is
nearly impossible for journalists to work in the region except in close
coordination with the military.

But last week’s hostage crisis unfolded squarely in the media glare. Most
television stations carried the standoff live for hours at a time, radio
stations broadcast cell phone conversations with hostages, and many TV channels
showed top officials arriving and departing from the emergency headquarters set
up next to the theater.

The hostage-takers even invited two crews from NTV television inside the
theater. But the interview given by the ringleaders was not broadcast in full,
in spite of the attackers’ demands. A hastily arranged cell phone conversation
between the station and one of the hostage-takers was abruptly cut off before it
could begin; the anchor said the line had been cut, and no attempt appeared to
be made to restore it.

Lesin expressed gratitude to the Russian media for its “understanding and
support” during the crisis, and said that the media had played a positive role.

“Any action by the media could have provoked an unpredictable reaction,” he
was quoted as saying in Izvestia.

Also Friday, the lower house voted 288-1, with two abstentions, to prohibit
returning terrorists’ bodies to their families or revealing their place of
burial.

Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov renewed calls for Denmark to
extradite Zakayev, Maskhadov’s foreign emissary who was detained in Copenhagen
earlier this week after attending a two-day conference on Chechnya.

Ivanov said Russian prosecutors had sent all the necessary documents
concerning Moscow’s allegations against Zakayev to Copenhagen.

Police continued to comb Moscow for suspected terrorists and their
collaborators. A 38-year-old Ukrainian man carrying three grenades was detained
in a Moscow subway station on Friday, the Moscow Interior Department press
office said.

In Germany, prosecutors opened a preliminary inquiry into the hostage-taking
under a new law allowing authorities to move against foreign terrorist
organizations that threatened German citizens, said Frauke Scheuten, a
spokeswoman for the prosecutor’s office. Two Germans were among the Moscow
hostages.