National media outlets agree to curb reporting on terrorism

New York, April 11, 2003—The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is concerned about the “Anti-Terrorist Convention,” which was signed on Tuesday, April 8, by directors of several leading national broadcast media outlets, who agreed to accept voluntary restrictions on their coverage of terrorism and anti-terrorist government operations.

The media executives who signed the agreement (click here to see the full text) pledged to obtain official authorization before interviewing “terrorists” on the air live, ban journalists from acting as independent mediators during a crisis situation, be mindful of the “tone” of their coverage, and comply with a series of other restrictions.

Media Minister Mikhail Lesin attended the ceremony where members of the Industrial Committee, a lobbying group of executives from state and private media, signed the convention.

Among the signatories were Konstantin Ernst, director of the pro-government Channel One television network; Anton Zlatopolskiy, director of the state-run Rossiya television network; Aleksandr Lyubimov, president of the pro-government Mediasoyuz journalists’ union; and Aleksei Venediktov, editor-in-chief of the independent Ekho Moskvy radio station.

Members of the Industrial Committee and senior government officials began meeting in early December 2002—several weeks after the October 2002 Nord-Ost hostage crisis in Moscow, during which 50 Chechen rebels and 120 hostages were killed—to begin drafting the convention.

The Kremlin had scrambled to restrict media coverage of the October crisis and saw the convention as way to formalize restrictions on media coverage in future crises, according to local press reports.

Some Russian media analysts have already criticized the agreement, saying it gives the government additional leverage over the country’s largely submissive national broadcast media. A legal analysis of the agreement by the Moscow-based Center for Journalists in Extreme Situations pointed out that the convention fails to clarify who is responsible for monitoring compliance with the restrictions and what are the consequences of violating the agreement.

“While this agreement has been presented as voluntary,” said CPJ acting director, “CPJ is concerned that the Russian government played a hand in drafting this convention and could use it to discourage critical coverage.”

In late October 2002, a group of heavily armed Chechen rebels seized some 700 hostages in a Moscow theater and demanded that Russian troops pull out of the war-torn region of Chechnya in southern Russia. As local journalists scrambled to cover the crisis, the Kremlin cracked down with information controls and threats to curb coverage.

During the three-day crisis, which lasted from October 23 to 26, Russia’s Media Ministry temporarily closed the private Moscow television station Moskoviya for allegedly promoting terrorism in its coverage of the siege.

And while Anna Politkovskaya, a war correspondent for the independent Moscow-based newspaper Novaya Gazeta, was attempting to negotiate the hostages’ releases, the Media Ministry forced the independent Moscow-based Ekho Moskvy radio station to remove from its Web site the text of a telephone interview with a hostage-taker.

After President Vladimir Putin ordered the Federal Security Bureau (FSB) to use a narcotic gas and storm the theater—a move that killed all the rebels and more than 120 hostages—the ministry issued a warning to the government-run Moscow daily Rossiiskaya Gazeta for publishing the photograph of the body of a woman killed by the hostage-takers.

Even after government troops stormed the theater, effectively ending the crisis, the Kremlin targeted a number of media outlets whose coverage had displeased officials. Kremlin chief of staff Aleksandr Voloshin and press secretary Aleksandr Gromov unsuccessfully pressured the television station NTV to fire its host and deputy head of news, Savik Shuster, for broadcasting an interview with relatives of some of the hostages, according to network sources.

In November, both houses of Parliament approved amendments to the Law on the Struggle with Terrorism and the Law on Mass Media, which legislators were considering at the time of the crisis. The amendments would have banned the media from printing or broadcasting information that justifies extremist activities and resistance to counterterrorist operations, hinders counterterrorist operations, or reveals anti-terrorist tactics.

In a rare display of solidarity, the managers of state and independent media, as well as two competing journalist associations, issued a joint appeal calling on Putin not to sign the amendments. The group said that the provisions were too broad and could potentially be used to ban all discussion of the war in Chechnya and to prevent the media from reporting critically on government responses to crises.

CPJ also sent a letter to the president urging him not to approve the law. On November 25, Putin vetoed the amendments and sent them back to Parliament for revision.

Two weeks later, on December 10, members of the Industrial Committee media lobbying group met with Media Minister Mikhail Lesin, Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, Federal Security Service (FSB) chief Nikolai Patrushev, Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) chief Sergei Lebedev and other senior government official to begin drafting the Anti-Terrorist Convention.

Legislators are currently redrafting legal amendments related to media coverage of terrorism.