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Censorship increasingly hits Russia's media

Stations reprimanded for coverage of crises

MOSCOW -- When a hostage-taking at a school in southern Russia erupted in explosions last month, viewers who rushed to turn on state-run Channel 1 were treated to a film, ''Lady with a Parrot." They wouldn't have fared much better on Channel 2, which stuck to a travelogue.

Many Russians instead received their news of the events in Beslan, in which more than 330 hostages died, from Echo of Moscow radio, whose anchors were monitoring CNN and BBC television.

''It gave me the creeps to see how the two main television channels of Russia were ignoring the climax of the hostage tragedy in Beslan. We couldn't take an iota from them," said Sergei Buntman, the independent radio station's deputy editor.

Russian media apparently didn't toe the line as thoroughly as they might have.

The Culture and Press Ministry announced last week that it had issued 18 reprimands for unspecified violations of the law on mass media, about a quarter of them connected with coverage of Beslan and other terrorist acts. It said a second violation could result in the revocation of an organization's license.

President Vladimir V. Putin's envoy to the upper house of parliament, Alexander Kotenkov, called for adoption of a censorship law. ''We must think of introducing regulatory, not narrow, censorship. We must clearly say what cannot be published in the mass media," said Kotenkov. The Kremlin said later that Kotenkov's comments did not reflect Putin's views.

The gradual disappearance of Russia's independent TV has been widely discussed. Remaining independent media also face regular Kremlin pressure. But only since the recent wave of attacks by Chechen and Ingush extremists has it become clear what state control really means.

During the Beslan crisis, state-run media offered few interviews with families of hostages. They were slow to report the fury of residents at the government, and ignored for days the growing evidence that the number of hostages inside the school was not 354, as officials insisted, but more than 1,200. Putin's absence from the scene throughout the three-day crisis was remarked on not at all.

''How frightened and lost they were, our glorious state television channels," wrote the establishment Moscow daily Izvestia two days before its editor in chief was fired over the paper's coverage of the tragedy. ''One can imagine how the heads of the state channels were sitting in their offices, watching CNN, receiving reports from their own correspondents and feverishly calling their controllers: 'Can I show this? If not, what can I show? And what do I say?' "

''A tendency toward growing censorship in Russia is obvious to everyone in this country. And this is a problem. If we accept the premise that Russian society is built on the principle of democracy, then we will see how serious the problem is," said Kirill Poznyakov, a news anchor on NTV, a private channel [controlled by the state-owned gas company] that did air live footage of the gunfight and storming at the school. Izvestia's managing editor, Georgy Bovt, also quit last week, in part because of a continuing standoff between the newspaper ownership and the Kremlin after the editor's firing. He said it was the natural inclination of authorities to ''tighten the screws" on a free press.

It is one of many reminders of 70 years of communist rule that the public -- and the media themselves -- tolerate it.

''The weakest point of Russian society is that it is not ready to resist these efforts," Bovt said.

Poznyakov learned first-hand about media restrictions in October 2002 during the seizure of hundreds of hostages at Moscow's Dubrovka theater by Chechen rebels. Poznyakov had one of the hostage-takers on the phone live -- until station management cut off the call.

One TV correspondent for a state-owned TV channel said reporters are never given specific guidelines, but know them almost instinctively. He cited Putin's recent initiative to end general elections for regional governors.

''The angle should be that it is a totally positive thing, that the constitution allows it perfectly well, and that it is not really appointing governors, since they need to be approved by local legislators who are elected by the general public," he said.

Even inexperienced young journalists seem to know, the correspondent said, ''When they do an assignment and . . . you ask them about their interviews, they give you an already-censored version of what the interviewees told them. You get a feeling that this self-censorship is already hard-wired in their minds."

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