At the end of August, the official government newspaper, Rossiiskaya Gazeta,
published a sensational article about the bombing of the Pankisi Gorge in
Georgia that left one person dead and several wounded. Citing an unnamed source
in the Georgian Defense Ministry, the newspaper reported that a Georgian plane
piloted by a Lieutenant Georgy Rusteli had dropped the deadly ordnance on his
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Rossiiskaya Gazeta article named no sources confirming Georgia’s responsibility
for the bombing. It included no comment from Russian experts who could have
confirmed or denied the version offered by the anonymous Georgian source.
The only “proof” offered by the author of the article was that the Georgian
plane had supposedly been repainted, adding Russian air force markings to the
tail and wings. The article does not make clear, however, why the plane needed
to be disguised when, according to the Organization for Security and Cooperation
in Europe mission in Georgia, the bombing was carried out at 5 a.m., when the
plane’s markings would have been invisible from the ground, much less in the air
at high speed.
As it turned out, Rossiiskaya Gazeta did not exactly break the story. One
day earlier, the web site Utro.ru had published an article by political editor
Alexander Agamov and military analyst Oleg Petrovsky titled “Dropping Bombs
Under a Foreign Flag.” This article included key “details” of the incident. It
named the pilot, Lieutenant Georgy Rusteli, the mechanic Vazha Todiya, provided
the identification number of the plane and described how it was repainted.
Rossiiskaya Gazeta failed to cite Utro.ru, passing its report off as an
A further search for information on the story revealed that the next day,
two more newspapers — Nezavisimaya Gazeta and Novye Izvestia — ran articles on
Lieutenant Rusteli that included ironic editorializing and denials from the
Georgian side. Articles published in Komsomolskaya Pravda and Trud, as well as
two government-owned newspapers, Krasnaya Zvezda and Parlamentskaya Gazeta, gave
the impression that reporters from these papers had actually been on the ground
in Georgia and had witnessed the early-morning bombing in person.
Then the other side of the story began to emerge. Novye Izvestia deputy
editor Sergei Agafonov told Ekho Moskvy radio that Rusteli is not even a
Georgian name. Teimuraz Gamtsemlidze, a counselor at the Georgian Embassy in
Moscow, confirmed this in an interview given to the RIA Novosti news agency. And
finally, the OSCE mission in Georgia announced that the planes involved in the
bombing had flown in from the north — that is, from Russia.
This is not the first time that the Russian press has published information
calculated to convince the public that Russia bears no blame for its various
military conflicts. Actual news outlets are normally employed in this effort:
the Itar-Tass, Ria Novosti and Interfax news agencies. The role of “informed
source” is often played by presidential assistant Sergei Yastrzhembsky and the
spokesman for Russian forces in Chechnya, FSB Colonel Ilya Shabalkin. Thanks to
these informed sources the Russian public learned that Chechen rebels were
producing poisoned vodka, and that they were planning to carry out terrorist
attacks during President George W. Bush’s visit to Russia. On May 14, Shabalkin
announced that “Chechen brigadier-generals are prepared to surrender, but they
are fearful of revenge attacks.” On Feb. 20, Colonel Shabalkin accused Novaya
Gazeta reporter Anna Politkovskaya of writing about Chechnya as a way of paying
off her debts to the Soros Foundation. On April 1, the FSB announced that it had
thwarted the planned kidnapping of journalists from RenTV. A similar
announcement followed on Aug. 27, when “Chechen police officers foiled an
attempt by gangsters to abduct a group of TV journalists.” In neither case were
the journalists actually named; the second announcement didn’t even mention the
TV station involved.
The military contends that it is defending journalists from kidnappers, but
fails to mention that the last time a Russian journalist was abducted — Andrei
Babitsky in January 2000 — the military itself was to blame. More likely this
is a way for the army brass in Chechnya to frighten journalists out of trying to
obtain information independently.
The military prevents journalists from reporting the real story in Chechnya,
and in return it offers only its own and often absurd version of events. When
soldiers carry out provocations like the bombing in Georgia, reporters friendly
to the Kremlin and the intelligence services are brought in to justify them.
In late 1999, the Kremlin dealt a blow to the credibility of foreign
journalists in Russia when Frank Hoefling, a reporter for German television
station N24, was given a videotape showing the burial of Chechen fighters. The
tape had been made by Izvestia journalist Oleg Blotsky. I don’t know what the
exact arrangements were, but Blotsky immediately came out and accused Hoefling
of slander. Hoefling was fired as a result, and Blotsky laid low for a while. He
turned up a year later as the author of a biography of Vladimir Putin. This year
he brought out a second book on the president. At a press conference he revealed
that the idea for the book had come from Yastrzhembsky.
During the first Chechen war, the level of disinformation in the Russian
press was high, but it varied according to the author’s reliance on official
sources. Journalists could still travel to Chechnya and do their own reporting.
All that changed with Putin’s election as president. Kremlin bureaucrats began
to talk more and more about the greatness of Russia, about Putin’s role and the
role of the state. The information security doctrine, signed in September 2000,
became the cornerstone of the government’s new information policy. As it turned
out, the Kursk tragedy and the censorship that ensued was the beginning of a new
era in government-press relations.
Most news coverage of the Kursk relied on anonymous sources or named
military officials who were lying through their teeth. The authorities brought
pressure to bear on those newspapers that questioned the official line.
The old Soviet tradition of serving up softball questions for the president
has been revived in Russian journalism. Witness, for example, the recent
coverage of Putin’s 50th birthday. Furthermore, Russian TV has clearly figured
out which camera angles most flatter the president.
Defeat in the Chechen campaign is perceived by the military as more than a
personal tragedy. The top brass lives in fear of being sacked and losing
prestige and privileges. Lying may only postpone the inevitable, but for now it
seems the only way to preserve the image of the “world’s greatest army.” The
real losers in all this are the journalists. Some believe they have no choice
but to bend to the military’s will. Most believe that lies are now the only
source of information available to them.
A couple of weeks ago, a group of journalists from Moscow’s liberal press
flew to Tbilisi to meet with politicians, government officials and Georgian
journalists. When Georgian reporters asked why the Russian press publishes so
much blatant disinformation, the Russians replied that no other information is
The hardest thing was talking with ordinary people on the streets who were
concerned by the news programs on the state-controlled RTR and ORT television
What they don’t know is that the Soviet lie has been revived in the Russian
press, and that, just as during the Soviet era, the best way to find out what’s
really going on is to tune into foreign radio stations. The government hasn’t
started jamming them yet.
Oleg Panfilov, director of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations,
contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.