Media face government restriction and pressure on coverage of hostage standoff

New York, October 25, 2002—The hostage standoff in central Moscow has highlighted growing restrictions on the Russian media, including this week’s passage of legislation banning “propaganda of terrorism” in mass media. Although the legislation has not become law, the government is already using it to censor coverage of the hostage crisis.

A large group of heavily armed Chechen rebels seized some 700 people in a Moscow theater on October 23, demanding that Russian troops pull out of the war-torn region of Chechnya in southern Russia.

The Qatar-based satellite television channel Al-Jazeera broadcast statements from the gunmen after a videocassette was dropped off at its Moscow bureau.

Meanwhile, Russian media have been interviewing hostages, and even the captors, by cellular phone, over the last two days. When the Moscow-based Ekho Moskvy radio station broadcast a brief interview on October 24 with one of the gunmen in the theater, Media Ministry spokesman Yuri Akinshin warned media outlets not to air statements from the hostage-takers.

“If this is repeated,” said Akinshin, “we reserve the right to take all proper measures, up to the termination of the activity of those media,” the Moscow-based Interfax news agency reported.

Ekho Moskvy editor-in-chief Aleksei Venediktov confirmed that the station had received a warning from the Media Ministry but pointed out that “in the view of our lawyers, we have not violated a single provision of Russian law.”

Today, the Media Ministry submitted a request to the Communications Ministry to shut down Ekho Moskvy’s Internet site, but withdrew the request after the station removed the text of the interview from the Web, Russian news reports said.

At the same time, the Media Ministry closed down Moskoviya, a Moscow television station, for allegedly promoting terrorism. However, after meeting with the director general of the station, the Ministry announced late today that Moskoviya would be back on air tomorrow, according to Russian news sources.

Another Russian media outlet, the Moscow daily Rossiyskaya Gazeta, received a warning from the Media Ministry for publishing a photograph of the body of the young woman who was killed by the armed captors on October 23, as she tried to enter the theater where the hostages are being held.

Early this morning, two journalists with the national television network NTV entered the theater to interview several of the armed Chechen rebels. NTV broadcast footage from inside the theater. However, while NTV showed the images of the hostages and their captors, it did not broadcast their voices. Later one of the hostages, Anna Andrianova, criticized NTV for not airing the audio.
“We would like for our requests and demands to the leadership [of the country] to be conveyed…. And we want to be heard,” said Andrianova in a telephone interview with Ekho Moskvy. “Unfortunately, NTV only showed the picture,” she added.

New legal restrictions on press coverage of terrorism
NTV appeared to be acting in response to a series of government actions this week. On October 23, just hours before the hostage crisis began, the State Duma voted overwhelmingly—259 to 34 with two abstentions—to broaden legal restrictions on news coverage of statements issued by terrorists and about anti-terrorist operations, widely referred to as the “Law on Battling Propaganda of Terrorism in Mass Media.”

The bill, which was under consideration months before the hostage crisis began, bans the media from printing or broadcasting an array of vaguely defined topics, including information that justifies extremist activities, justifies resistance to counter-terrorist operations, hinders counter-terrorist operations, and reveals anti-terrorist tactics.

Although the media bill has yet to be approved by the upper house of Parliament and signed by President Vladimir Putin before it officially becomes law, the Media Ministry’s actions this week against Ekho Moskvy, Moskoviya, and Rossiyskaya Gazeta were all based on the pending legislation.

Journalists are among the hostages and those seeking to end the standoff.
A journalist for the Moscow-based Interfax news agency, an editorial assistant for Agence France-Press, and a typist from Ekho Moskvy radio station were all reported to be among the hundreds of hostages.

Meanwhile, according to Russian press reports, the hostage-takers specifically requested that a prominent journalist who has covered human rights violations in Chechnya be among a team of negotiators.

Anna Politkovskaya, a war correspondent for the Moscow newspaper Novaya Gazeta, along with doctors and Red Cross officials, entered the theater several times today to deliver emergency supplies and attempt to negotiate the release of the hostages, Interfax reported.