Silence of the state

The editor of Izvestia is sacked after the paper criticizes the Russian government for censorship of coverage of the Beslan crisis.

Published September 7, 2004 1:28PM (EDT)

The editor of Russia's best known daily, Izvestia, was sacked yesterday, two days after the newspaper carried strong criticism of the government's handling of the Beslan school tragedy. Raf Shakirov lost his job after the paper questioned officials' claim that the number of hostages was only 350, reported that parents of the hostages entered the school ahead of the security forces, and published a powerful column denouncing the censored coverage of the events by state TV.

Under the headline "The Silence of the State Broadcasters," Irina Petrovskaya said the state channels panicked when the shooting started last Friday and failed to give live coverage like CNN, BBC and the independent Russian radio station Ekho Moskvy. They had to wait for instructions on what to show and what to say, she said. This was the approach that dominated the coverage from that moment, and it would continue.

"I'm sure that when the official version of what happened is worked out and approved on high, we'll be showered with more lies and muck. I'm also sure that those who used their own understanding of professionalism and reported things which they should not have done will be reprimanded," Petrovskaya wrote.

NTV, the only national channel that was independent of the government when President Putin came to power, was taken over by the state four years ago. It was reporting live when the shooting started at 1 p.m. local time on Friday. The channel quickly switched to prerecorded material. It went back to its reporters 30 minutes later and gave three hours of live coverage but stopped again when troops approached the school.

The two main state channels waited until 2 p.m. before broadcasting an edited 10-minute bulletin from Beslan. Channel One then resumed normal afternoon entertainment programs, starting with a soap opera called "Women in Love."

Two of Russia's leading journalists with independent views on Chechnya were not even able to get to Beslan, it emerged Monday. Andrei Babitsky, of Radio Liberty, was arrested at Moscow's Vnukovo airport on Thursday and stopped from flying south as police searched his bag, claiming he might have explosives. After they had finished, two strangers came up and started a scuffle. They and Babitsky were detained, and Babitsky was charged with hooliganism. The next day he was sentenced to five days in prison.

Anna Politkovskaya, a reporter for Novaya Gazeta who has received death threats for her reporting on Chechnya and has denounced the Russian forces for atrocities, was mysteriously taken ill on a plane from Vnukovo to Rostov. After drinking tea supplied by the stewardess, she fainted. Doctors said she had been poisoned. Later she flew back to Moscow on a private plane without going to Beslan and was taken to a hospital in the capital. She is recovering at home and was unavailable for comment Monday.

By Jonathan Steele

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