Managing Freedom of Speech

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We look forward to hearing from you.Email the Opinion Page EditorOn Aug. 16,
Russian soldiers detained camera crews from ORT television and TV Center working
in Chechnya and confiscated their cameras, microphones, personal belongings and
press passes. Alexei Borzenko, a correspondent for TV Center, told the Interfax
news agency that the soldiers were from the military commandant’s office.

The incident occurred when the journalists arrived in the settlement of
Shalazhi, where Chechen fighters had skirmished with federal soldiers the night
before. On Aug. 16, the army began a “special operation” in the settlement, and
accused the journalists of traveling to Shalazhi “on their own initiative and
without military escort.” This incident highlights two troubling aspects of the
peculiar relationship between journalists and the military, which since August
1999 has flouted the Constitution and its laws regulating the press.

The first is that journalists cannot and will not do anything to defend
themselves. After the Aug. 16 incident, the journalists involved appealed not to
the Prosecutor General’s Office, but to Akhmad Kadyrov, head of the pro -Moscow
Chechen administration, who has no direct jurisdiction over the military or the
press.

The second is that the army was conducting a special operation and didn’t
want journalists to witness its methods, or the result. The military usually
describes its operations in Chechnya as counter-terrorism, thereby taking cover
behind a law “on the war on terrorism” signed by then-President Boris Yeltsin on
July 25, 1998.

In September 1999, Yeltsin issued a secret decree launching
counter-terrorist operations in Chechnya. Journalists working in the breakaway
republic immediately ran into trouble. The government’s official line holds that
the restrictions on press freedom in Chechnya are necessary because of the
threat of kidnapping, injury and death. But it seems to me that the cause lies
elsewhere: The first Chechen war, which lasted nearly two years, was won not by
the Chechen resistance, but by journalists.

It was reporters who showed the world the horrors of that war — the carpet
bombing, murder of civilians, filtration camps and maimed children. Yeltsin was
forced to accept a peace agreement because television coverage of the war was
beamed into millions of homes around the world, including the homes of world
leaders capable of exerting influence on Russia.

By 1999 Russia’s top brass were preparing for a new war, which they would
call a “counter-terrorism operation,” in line with the new law on the war on
terrorism signed by Yeltsin. This law allowed the generals to shield their
activities from prying eyes and ears.

Anyone who takes the time to study the 1998 law, however, will discover that
the military began to violate it as soon as operations got underway on Oct. 1,
1999.

Chapter 1, Article 3 of the law defines the zones in which counter-terrorist
operations can be carried out. These zones include “individual sectors,
districts and bodies of water, vehicles, buildings, structures, installations,
premises and any grounds or bodies of water belonging to them.” Nowhere does the
law state that an entire region of the Russian Federation, covering 17,000
square kilometers, could be classified as a zone of operations.

Casuistry is the Russian bureaucrat’s stock in trade. Since the law mentions
zones suitable for counter-terrorist operations, government functionaries feel
free to interpret this provision as they see fit. Such a functionary could
decide that a whole republic, such as Chechnya, falls under the law. There’s a
risk that the generals will some day extend the Chechen zone to cover the entire
North Caucasus region.

Another article in the law states that the press corps working in an anti
-terrorism zone shall be regulated by the commanding officer in charge of
operations. But who really commands the journalists? Sergei Yastrzhembsky, the
Kremlin’s chief spokesman on Chechnya, who currently has no legal authority to
do so.

Contrary to the current practice, the law on the press says the accrediting
agency is called upon to assist journalists, not to restrict their movement and
hinder their work.

Freedom of speech in Russia was a catchphrase among Western journalists and
politicians during the Yeltsin years and a key indicator used in assessing the
new Russian democracy. Yeltsin certainly had plenty of cause to lash out at the
Russian press, which at times openly discussed his affair with the bottle. But
he never did, for he remembered that he had come to power thanks in no small
part to favorable press coverage.

President Vladimir Putin has an entirely different relationship with the
press — he fears and loathes it. That is, he would like the press to be
obedient, patriotic and serve the interests of the state, though he seems to
forget that it’s too late to send journalists back into the dark age of
censorship. He has managed to make some “progress” in this direction, however.
The tests he has already “passed” include the old team of journalists at NTV
television, the Kursk tragedy, TV6, Ekho Moskvy radio, Novaya Gazeta newspaper,
etc. This list could be extended, but just how far depends on Russian
journalists themselves.

Chechnya has become the abyss into which Russian journalists fall one after
the other. The tone of reports from Chechnya on the two state-owned networks has
changed drastically when compared with the first war. NTV sways between the
truth and the Kremlin line. Ekho Moskvy adds a dash of objective reporting to
its usual fare of government propaganda. Newspapers exert no influence on the
public any longer, and owners of major publications whose circulation exceeds 1
million copies know very well the dangers of irritating the Kremlin.

The result is that a new Russian censorship and propaganda have arisen in
Chechnya and in all that concerns Chechnya. Propaganda limits what the public
knows about the progress of the war. Censorship ensures that the generals decide
what information gets into print. God forbid that a journalist accuse
Yastrzhembsky or Press Minister Mikhail Lesin of violating his rights. He’s
likely to lose his accreditation. Foreign journalists can face visa
difficulties. And if a journalist works for an influential newspaper, his
editors could find themselves in hot water.

The law provides a mechanism for exerting pressure on the government when a
journalist’s rights are violated. It’s Article 144 of the Criminal Code, which
includes penalties for hindering a journalist in his work. The correspondents of
ORT and TV Center could have filed a complaint with the prosecutor’s office
requesting a criminal investigation. They chose to follow Soviet tradition —
asking their superiors to get involved. No one really wants to implement the
laws — not the government, not the journalists.

This state of affairs is called manageable democracy, or, more to the point,
manageable freedom of speech. I get the impression that many of our government
officials have either never read the Constitution or willfully forgotten its
existence. Article 29 of the Constitution — which provides for freedom of the
press and forbids censorship, among other things — is not something the
generals and the Kremlin bureaucrats want to think about. Laws in Russia are not
meant to be implemented. They’re just meant to lie there and look pretty.

Oleg Panfilov, director of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations,
contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.