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Friday, November 19, 1999 Published at 17:32 GMT

Russia's media war over Chechnya

Soldiers: Russian media has reported their victories at length

BBC Monitoring's Peter Feuilherade reports on how the spin doctors in Moscow are waging an information war to control the media's reporting of the conflict in Chechnya.

At this month's Newsworld conference on the global news industry in Barcelona, Nato spokesman Jamie Shea said the Kosovo conflict had taught the organisation several lessons about the impact of the media.

Battle for the Caucasus
If Nato were involved in a future campaign, he said, the most effective way of waging a media war would be to try to create "rival (news) outlets", the Internet and radio being ideal.

Moscow is applying the same tactics to try to win the information war in Chechnya.

When the previous Chechen war started in 1994, the then fledgling commercial station NTV showed graphic pictures from both sides of the conflict.

[ image: Terrorists? Government has been determined to crush Chechen opinion]
Terrorists? Government has been determined to crush Chechen opinion
Now, Russian broadcasters and press are much more restricted in how they report the fighting.

Coverage in the Russian media has played a major part in ensuring that support for the war remains strong among the Russian population.

Civil servants have been issued with guidance on dealing with the media, including a glossary which specifies that Chechen fighters must be referred to as "terrorists".

The newly-created press ministry and government press centre in Moscow have been strengthened with what Western journalists are describing as "freshly trained spin-doctors" - media relations professionals who specialise in putting the best possible gloss on a story.

The battle for public opinion is also being waged on the airwaves.

On 4 November, the Russian Information Centre and the military General Staff summoned executives of Russia¿s leading TV and radio companies to draw up plans for broadcasts to Chechnya and adjacent regions.

"All the reports, both from Moscow and locally, will be prepared under the aegis of the Russian Information Centre and will be transmitted in Russian and possibly, in time, also in Arabic," Russia TV reported.

New radio station

However, on 12 November the media war took a new turn when BBC Monitoring's Caucases experts picked up a radio station identifying itself as "Radio Free Chechnya".

[ image: Spin Doctoring: Kremlin has centralised media affairs]
Spin Doctoring: Kremlin has centralised media affairs
It carried news and battle reports with a strongly pro-Moscow line but the output contained no polemical commentaries usually associated with propaganda radio stations.

The station says it is broadcasting for 18 hours a day on shortwave and mediumwave. It is thought to be using shortwave transmitters near St Petersburg.

In contrast, Russia's military news agency AVN says that "Chechen separatists" are operating at least 23 radio networks from within the breakaway republic, two of which broadcast in Arabic.

Journalists killed

Carlotta Gall of the Moscow Times, who covered the 1994-96 Chechen war, said that it is now far more difficult to report from inside the region.

"Nowadays there's a huge problem with the coverage of Chechnya because it's now very, very dangerous for journalists to cover," she said.

[ image: Refugees: Humanitarian story heavily covered by western media]
Refugees: Humanitarian story heavily covered by western media
"There's a lot of kidnapping and very few editors will actually send people down there."

At least two journalists are known to have been killed since the fighting started two months ago.

One, Ramzan Mezhidov, a freelancer for for Moscow's Centre TV, was reportedly shot at from a Russian aircraft while filming the bombing of a refugee convoy on 29 October.

The second, Sulyan Ependiyev, a correspondent for the Groznenskiy Rabochiy newspaper, was killed during a missile attack on the Chechen capital two days previously.

Net wars

There are currently relatively few Internet sites that reflect the Chechen viewpoint.

The pro-Chechen Kavkaz-Tsentr web site ( reports Chechen military successes against Russian forces, as well as more light-hearted items, such as the story on 16 November that Chechen military commander Shamil Basayev had taken a second wife.

The Chechen Republic Online website (, maintained by the Chechen government, carries news items and the background to the conflict, drawn mainly from the Western media.

But the Chechen media war is being fought against a backdrop of heated discussion in Russia itself on the issue of media behaviour during the campaign for the coming parliamentary and presidential elections.

The Central Election Commission does not think the media ought to engage in canvassing at all.

Editors, on the other hand, are asking how the political position of a media outlet can be separated from its reporting of the election campaign.

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.

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