Shooting truth in the back of the head

Here's what the Russian government doesn't want you to know about the war in Chechnya.

Published January 31, 2000 2:00PM (EST)

Last week in Grozny, as a mighty firestorm of artillery roared overhead and the rebel city burned around us, I stood arguing with a pig-faced Russian lieutenant colonel who wanted to arrest me. My offense was being a foreigner. Which might seem like a strange crime, on the face of it, but for my friend the Federal Security Service (read: KGB) officer who waved a pair of handcuffs in my face it was serious enough.

I can understand, possibly, being arrested (assaulted, insulted) for being a journalist in the wrong place at the wrong time. But there were other journalists there, all Russian, all talking to the same people and photographing the same things as me. What appalled the KGB man was the idea of me, an unaccompanied foreigner, freewheeling around Chechnya with no escort, no army press officer and -- horror or horrors -- no "permission" to be there.

An atavistic paranoia, strongly reminiscent of Soviet-era spy mania, has swept Russian officialdom since the beginning of this latest Chechen campaign last September. The concept behind it is that foreigners -- with Russians working for foreign media thrown in -- are spies, traitors, engaged in an organized campaign of "dezinformatsia" directed against Russia. Therefore, the logic goes, they must not be allowed anywhere near Chechnya itself except in carefully herded groups so they don't get a chance to see for themselves the, er, excellent discipline of the Russian troops and the triumphal advance of the Russian military, happy Chechens liberated from the tyranny of fundamentalist Islamic rule, and so on. But if everything is so great in Chechnya, why can't we see it?

Just for the record, this is what the Russian government does not want you to know about its latest war to crush "terrorists" in the breakaway republic: Its troops are being killed at a dramatically higher rate than Moscow admits. The Russian assault on Grozny is turning into a bloody stalemate. Russia's campaign is being crippled by bad leadership, bad morale, bad communications and bad coordination. Russians soldiers routinely loot Chechen villages and kill Chechen civilians.

Do we expect the Russians to admit this? No, of course not. Nor do we expect the Russians to make it easy for us to uncover their lies. No self-respecting government would be stupid enough to tell the truth about its own military disasters. The U.S. authorities in Vietnam didn't exactly bend over backwards to help Seymour Hirsh investigate My Lai. On the contrary, we expect governments to lie when they are waging war. So whats the difference between Chechnya and every other war in history that governments have lied about?

The difference is this: The Russian authorities have stepped beyond the bounds of propaganda and back into the familiar territory of totalitarian control over what we, as foreign journalists, get to see, where we get to go and who we get to speak to. What we are witnessing in Chechnya is a concerted attempt by a supposedly democratic government to criminalize the coverage of a major world news story. A decade and a half ago, pre-Glasnost, this would not be surprising.

But now the heirs of Russia's first democratic president -- specifically, acting president Vladimir Putin -- are actively attacking the very basis of freedom of speech, without which the Soviet regime would not have fallen and Putin would have remained a mediocre KGB spy in East Germany.

I spoke last week to Sergei Yastrzhembsky, former Kremlin spokesman and recently appointed spinmeister for Russia's Chechen campaign. He told me the following things: that "foreign journalists enjoy equal rights to report in Chechnya as Russians," that "censorship is illegal in Russia." Fine -- prizes from George Soros all round. But a day later Newsweek received a call from British Airways Cargo at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport, informing us that our weekly package of photos and bureau correspondence had been "arrested" by Russian customs. Why? They had an order from the "special services" (read: FSB, the modern incarnation of the KGB) to stop and examine any material from Chechnya. After some haranguing, the pouch was de-arrested and sent on its way -- but we were warned by BA Cargo that in the future, Chechnya-related photos could be held up indefinitely "for investigation."

We could transmit the photos, of course, by e-mail. But the FSB, citing "anti-terrorist measures", has in recent months moved to enforce a 5-year-old statute requiring all Russian Internet service providers to build -- at their own and their customers' expense -- fiber-optic links to FSB headquarters so that the spooks at the Lyubyanka can read all e-mail correspondence in real time, without a warrant of any kind.

Our experience at Newsweek is just the tip of the iceberg. In fact, Russian correspondents working for Western media run a much higher risk, largely because they are more vulnerable and less protected by the collective clannishness of the foreign journalists' community in Moscow.

Andrei Babitsky, for instance, a veteran reporter for Radio Liberty and probably one of the most outstanding journalists working in Chechnya today, disappeared 12 days ago. Late last week it emerged, through unnamed sources quoted by the Russian news agency Interfax, that Babitsky had been taken into custody by pro-Moscow Chechens while crossing the front lines on the way out of Grozny. He was being "questioned," said the source, by the "special services" and may be tried for "participating in illegal armed bands." There has yet to be any official confirmation of the story. But needless to say, Babitsky's first-class reports from behind Chechen lines blatantly contradicted the official Russian line. Radio Liberty's millions of listeners across Russia tuned in to Babitsky in order to get objective news which is banned from the airwaves of the two main state-owned TV channels. Just like in the good old days.

When Reuters stringer Maria Eismont moved a controversial story on Dec. 15 reporting that a Russian column had been ambushed by rebels in the center of Grozny and over 100 federal soldiers killed, the Russian authorities responded not just with a denial but a direct accusation that the story had been "planted" by "foreign special services." FSB spokesman Lt. Gen. Alexandr Zdanovich said in an official statement that Eismont and her colleague from the Associated Press, Ruslan Musayev, were being "used" by unspecified foreign enemies as "a channel for disinformation."

When Eismont finally managed to leave Grozny and get back to Moscow's Vnukovo airport on Dec. 26, airport security officers quite blatantly planted a round of ammunition in the bag of a Chechen woman travelling with her. The single bullet would have been enough to send the Chechen to jail for three years for transporting unlicensed arms -- fortunately for all concerned, money changed hands and the woman was freed. But was it a warning to Eismont? Or to all of us, as to how easily the authorities can frame us if they want?

The list goes on. One Belgian photojournalist staying at the hotel Assa in Nazran, the capital of neighboring Ingushetia and the base for most journalists trying to get into and cover Chechnya, found a vital computer cord she needed in order to transmit photos had been neatly snipped while she was out. A bureau chief for a major U.S. news magazine (not Newsweek) had made arrangements to meet a Chechen contact for an interview in Nazran -- but a young Ingush man in civilian clothes came to his room and calmly told him, "we know what you're up to -- don't try it, it'll end badly." Point taken.

Compared to that, my brush with the FSB colonel in Grozny was chicken feed. My friend Beslan Gantemirov, commander of the pro-Moscow Chechen forces, overruled the colonel and laughed off his threat to have me helicoptered to Russian military headquarters in Mozdok for interrogation.

Some of my colleagues weren't so lucky. Seven Western journalists were caught by the FSB on Dec. 30 near Staraya Sunzha, on the outskirts of Grozny, where they had driven by back roads with no escort. They were duly arrested, flown to Mozdok and questioned separately in bare rooms in classic KGB style. They were threatened with having their foreign ministry accreditations revoked -- tantamount to being expelled from the country -- if they repeated their offense.

But what was their offense -- or mine, for that matter, that noisy afternoon on the front line in Grozny? All foreign correspondents have Foreign Ministry accreditation and visas which give us the right, according to the Law on the Press, to work anywhere in Russia. Since this war is, after all, largely about proving that Chechnya is an inalienable part of Russia, it seems strange that our documents are supposedly invalid. Some of us, including myself, have a piece of paper from the military commandant of Chechnya giving us "permission to work in the liberated territories of the Chechen republic". But even that cuts little ice with the FSB.

We have broken the "rules" -- but the "rules" are unpublished. We don't know what rules we are not supposed to break -- a very classic Soviet situation. I asked Yastrzhembsky whether the rules in fact existed, and if they did, to fax them to me. I'm still waiting. I know why. Any "rules" restricting our movements are illegal -- a point the Law on the Press is quite explicit about, saying that journalists' movements can only be controlled if a state of emergency is declared. Russia has not only declared no such state of emergency in Chechnya, it hasn't even declared war, insisting that this is an "anti-terrorist operation". Hence, no published rules.

The only accreditation that gives you any official access to the front lines is one issued by the Defense Ministry, and then only for a few days only with the explicit proviso that the powers that be will have to "look at" what is written or broadcast and make a judgement about its "objectivity." Russian journalists are given the accreditations freely, with the proviso that they must not "channel the material abroad."

Of the Western media, only The New York Times, CNN and the BBC have succeeded in getting military accreditation -- but inevitably, whether it exists or not, the correspondents are open to the threat of self-censorship in the interests of preserving their access.

The rest of the foreign press corps -- with the exception of a few journalists who slip into "liberated" Chechnya illegally or semi-legally, or those who work on the Chechen side -- are herded onto carefully scripted Intourist-style press trips. The highlight of one such trip I went on a few weeks ago was a visit to a chicken factory to demonstrate the resurgence of the Chechen economy under Russian rule. Except that, as the jovial chief vet explained to the embarrassment of our herders, they had no eggs and no chickens "because the rebels ate them all."

The clever thing about the press trips is that they prevent the journalists hearing what's really going on. As I discovered, Russian soldiers and officers will tell you the most hair-raising tales of resentment and disillusionment when you speak to them one on one. But with FSB officers and press goons hovering around within earshot, they stick religiously to the official line.

There was a time when I thought that Russia was progressing somehow towards a more or less civil society, with a more or less free press. Maybe I was naive. Correction: I was naive. Propaganda I can accept. Lies, even, are par for the course. But what is happening in Chechnya is beyond propaganda, beyond mere lies. This is an information blockade, backed with the not-so-subtle threat for the full force of totalitarian reprisals. The result is that we are worse informed about his war than any other of modern times -- with the notable exception of Cambodia in 1975.

Truth, as we all know, is the first casualty of war. But in most cases truth makes it through alive -- battered, even horribly mutilated, but alive. In this Chechen war the Russian authorities are doing their best to take truth around the back and shoot it in the back of the head for treason.

By Owen Matthews

Owen Matthews is a foreign correspondent for Newsweek magazine. He is currently based in Moscow.

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