Public confidence in the media in Russia has fallen to rock-bottom levels following controversial coverage of the Beslan school siege. A new opinion poll showed that just 13 percent of Russians trusted media reports about the tragedy, in which at least 335 people died.
Eighty-five percent of respondents expressed disbelief in the reports, according to the poll, conducted across Russia, by the St. Petersburg-based Independent Analytical Center last weekend. It is a sobering statistic for a country that emerged more than a decade ago from the Soviet era, when state-run media outlets were closely vetted by the Communist Party and misinformation was all too common.
Television stations in particular have come under fire after they followed the government line that only around 350 people had been taken hostage at the school -- less than a third of the actual number -- and then hesitated to show the unfolding tragedy on Friday, when explosions rang out and troops moved in to start a gun battle with hostage takers. It took an hour for two of the country's main three TV stations to go live to Beslan, and even then one of them returned to its schedule to show a drama after just 10 minutes. Presenters stuck to the Kremlin-approved line about what was happening, insisting that the Russian troops had no plan for storming the school.
The stations are all controlled by the state in one way or another and have been accused of providing a mouthpiece for government evasions and lies. They have reportedly toned down their approach since the Dubrovka theater siege in Moscow two years ago, when President Vladimir Putin criticized them for abusing media freedom and accused them of jeopardizing the safety of hostages with their coverage.
While TV stations appeared to have erred on the side of censorship, several Russian newspapers have been vigorous in their attacks on the government and the TV channels' coverage. "My God, how our valiant state television stations took fright and lost their heads," wrote columnist Irina Petrovskaya in the daily paper Izvestia on Saturday. The Moskovsky Komsomolets said: "They're lying to us all the time ... The last five terrorist attacks have been one long uninterrupted stream of lies."
But such criticism has not been without a cost -- Izvestia's editor, Raf Shakirov, was forced to resign over his paper's handling of the disaster. That said, the paper returned to the fray on Tuesday with a point-by-point rebuttal of the official version of events. Controlled by businessman Vladimir Potanin through the Prof-Media publishing house, Izvestia has a reputation for steering clear of overt criticism of Putin.
Papers run by Russia's "oligarchs" -- super-rich businessmen who profited from the sale of state assets under former President Yeltsin -- sometimes show restraint in their coverage to avoid getting their owners into trouble with the Kremlin.
Fears that press freedom in Russia is hanging by a slender thread have been highlighted by a number of other incidents in the past few days.
Journalist Anna Politkovskaya, a high-profile critic of the Kremlin's policy on Chechnya, was allegedly poisoned on a flight to Beslan last week. Andrei Babitsky, a correspondent for the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe, was detained by Russian authorities at Moscow airport and prevented from traveling to the town after he was provoked into a fight that landed him in jail. And a Georgian TV crew was reportedly detained in Beslan for crossing the Russian border without visas, an hour after they reported on the siege.