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Monday, 21 August, 2000, 14:15 GMT 15:15 UK
Media struggles for Kursk truth
Sailor on leave
Russia TV has shown home videos of the sailors

By BBC Monitoring's Patrick Jackson

The independence of Russia's TV and radio stations was put to the test by the Kursk submarine accident.

While the state media had to make do with the authorities' reassurances, private stations dropped their uneasy truce with President Putin to pursue the harsh truth.

The semi-state Russian Public TV channel and wholly state-owned Russia TV initially devoted much of their bulletins to lengthy interviews with naval and government officials, allowing them to make their statements unchallenged.

The state radio station Radio Russia was reporting on the day news of the accident broke (14 August) that a diving bell had "restored communications" with the Kursk and was also feeding it oxygen and fuel.

Given the "calm sea", the need for its crew to abandon the submarine, one of the most advanced in the Russian navy's inventory, "has not arisen yet", the radio said.

Star reporter

But a Russia TV correspondent based at Severodvinsk near Archangel was reporting the same day that the last contact with the submarine had been a request by the captain to commence firing torpedoes.

Three days after the story broke, one of the channel's star correspondents, Arkadiy Mamontov, was quoting "rescuers and naval seamen" as saying a collision was the likely cause of the accident.

The original report, which seemed to confirm Western suspicions of a torpedo explosion, vanished from bulletins for two days until Russia's private NTV channel retrieved it.

Mamontov has become a household name in Russia as the only TV correspondent allowed access to the scene of the rescue.

His live reports from aboard the Petr Velikiy warship have regularly interrupted scheduled programmes.

One newspaper, Komosmolskaya Pravda, has joked sarcastically, however, that if the reporter says "one word too many he will be thrown overboard".

Press attacks

The Russian press has been much freer in its attacks on the handling of the disaster, with titles ranging from the tabloid Moskovskiy Komsomolets to the heavyweight Izvestiya openly accusing the authorities of barefaced lying.

Another tabloid, Komsomolskaya Pravda, took perhaps the boldest step by obtaining through bribery a list of the crewmen and publishing it as a duty "to the sailors fighting for their lives".

The pro-government Rossiyskaya Gazeta, started out with assurances that the Kursk had a special "rescue chamber" capable of saving the whole crew before eventually concluding that "it would be easier to land on the moon than get help to the sailors".

Another disaster, more lies

NTV, which has often seen its owners locked in battle with the Yeltsin and Putin administrations, interviewed the same naval officials as the other channels but also went to retired naval officers for a fuller picture.

Evidently something blew up. There can be no other reason for the sinking of a submarine

Captain Yevgeny Aznabayev

As news broke, the channel went to the commander of the K-219 submarine which suffered a missile explosion in the Atlantic in 1986.

"It was the same thing - no information on how many were killed, what had happened and so on," Captain Yevgeny Aznabayev told the TV.

"The authorities just don't give out any information."

Navy 'panic'

Ekho Moskvy, NTV's sister radio station, fielded a well-known commentator on military affairs, Pavel Felgengauer, to savage official reports.

He said the submarine had hit the seabed "like an axe" and the crew, or most of it, had probably perished immediately.

The shame of losing an "unsinkable" submarine in peacetime had created panic in the navy, he said..

This panic is evidently making our military lay on the lies thick

Commentator Pavel Felgengauer

For the radio's guest, the only hard conclusion about the Kursk was that those who had ordered the navy to "lie to the whole world and to its own people" should be made to pay.

The radio also conducted telephone opinion polls about how the authorities were handling the crisis.

With the TV channels showing Mr Putin in his shirt-sleeves in the Black Sea holiday resort of Sochi, the radio reported that 73% of listeners thought he should be up north at the scene of the rescue mission.

BBC Monitoring, based in Caversham in southern England, selects and translates information from radio, television, press, news agencies and the Internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages.

The Kursk submarine accident

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