Kremlin Embattled On Two Fronts
MOSCOW (AP) _ The Kremlin’s campaign to shape the news about the war in Chechnya has been no more successful than its military offensive against the rebel republic.
Both campaigns have been hard fought. Both have provoked a bitter outcry. Both pit the Kremlin against a so far unbeaten foe determined to remain independent.
Many Russians fear the Kremlin will eventually overwhelm the media by brute force, the same the way it may finally overrun tiny Chechnya.
``I am worried about the fate of our frail and imperfect democracy, in particular freedom of the press,″ Russia’s human rights commissioner, Sergei Kovalyov, said.
Censors could be standing in the wings. Editors, reporters and photographers, many of whom work for government-funded media, could be fired. Newspapers, magazines and government-licensed radio stations and Russia’s lone independent nation TV channel, could be shut down.
``You can’t wage barbaric war against your own people and have a free press at the same time,″ said Andrei Pionktovsky, head of the independent Strategic Studies Center. ``One of them must be stopped.″
But until that happens, fragments of the truth about the war are emerging in the Russian media, most of which still relies on government funding.
The Kremlin has mustered doughty propaganda weapons from the Soviet era _ dense euphemisms and information voids _ in the news war the same way the army has employed Soviet-era tactics for the shooting war.
Both have been roundly criticized.
``Their every word is a lie,″ Kovalyov said after three weeks in Grozny, the besieged Chechen capital.
Shortly after President Boris Yeltsin sent thousands of Russian troops into Chechnya, the Soviet-era nightly news program ``Vremya″ (Time) was back on the air. Even the theme music was the same. State-run television calls the new name for the former program, ``News,″ a coincidence.
But Yelena Bonner, widow of human rights hero Andrei Sakharov, thinks not.
``We live once again in an environment of lies typical of the mass media under Soviet power, in the same kind of time (vremya) _ and with the same Vremya,″ she said.
Vremya, which airs on state-run Ostankino television, is probably the most widely watched news program in Russia.
``There are attempts to exert pressure on us,″ Viktor Kuznetsov, Ostankino’s deputy news director, acknowledged. ``Officials try to tell us what to do. But there are no direct orders like in the past.″
In stark contrast, is Independent Television (NTV).
Unlike Ostankino, which tends to rely on official statements and army propaganda video, NTV has correspondents in the war zone. Dead Russian soldiers, devastated Chechen villages, dispirited Russian prisoners of war _ NTV shows it all.
Yevgeny Kiselev, host of the popular weekly news show Itogi and an NTV vice president, said the pressure to tone down coverage is intense.
``The threat of withdrawing our license is hanging above our heads,″ he told Associated Press Television.
NTV’s coverage is unflinching _ but only reaches half the viewers of Ostankino and the other state channel, Russian Television.
The war has been front-page news since the Dec. 11 invasion. So has the spin control. The official story _ and how it differs from reality _ has become a big part of the story.
Many official claims ``are humiliating in their obvious absurdity,″ the daily Izvestia wrote. ``They are apparently taking the Russian people for halfwits.″
The reality warp begins at the most fundamental level: The government, starting with Yeltsin, denies there is a war.
In official parlance, ``illegal armed units″ and ``criminal gangs″ are being disarmed and ``constitutional order″ restored.
The airstrikes that destroyed Grozny, wrecked outlying villages and killed hundreds of civilians also taxed the inventiveness of government spokesmen.
Sometimes they simply deny it happened. Sometimes they say the Chechens are bombing themselves.
Public indignation reached a fever pitch after the failed Russian assault on Grozny on New Year’s Eve.
While the corpses of Russian soldiers lined Grozny’s streets, their government described victorious troops doling out hot meals to grateful citizens.
It was an eerie echo from 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, when the Kremlin propaganda machine churned out tales about the kindly Red Army distributing milk to Afghan villagers.
The daily Komsomolskaya Pravda ran a front-page photo of dead Russian soldiers lying in the snow. Yeltsin was superimposed on the background _ with a grin on his face and a champagne goblet in his hand.
``Nyet Porokha, Nyet Pravdy, Nyet Prezidienta,″ said the headline. ``No Gunpowder, No Truth, No President.″