Kremlin Tells Press To Toe The Line

With the war in Chechnya dragging on and presidential elections approaching, Russian officials say they're determined to keep negative news coverage - by Russians or foreigners - from interfering with either the war or the election.

In the case of commercial NTV television - which has questioned official casualty figures - they backed up their warning with action, booting NTV from press trips that enable TV cameras to focus on the fighting.

Vladimir Kozin, a Foreign Ministry adviser, said in an article Monday in Nezavisimaya Gazeta that Western journalists were telling only the Chechen side.

"It's an obvious fact: The leading Western television and radio stations give airtime exclusively to the Chechen separatists and their allies, consciously distorting the situation in the North Caucasus."

Kozin called for "more decisive and concrete actions in creating an information blockade in relation to those participants of the Western journalist pool who are undertaking subversive work on the territory of the republic of Chechnya and in neighboring subjects of the Russian Federation."

Russian officials have been quick to criticize adverse coverage of the war. When Reuters and The Associated Press printed accounts of heavy casualties among members of a Russian armored column in Grozny's Minutka Square, officials accused the journalists of working for foreign intelligence agencies trying to undermine the Russian war effort.

Public support for the war has been an important element in the rise of acting President Vladimir Putin's popularity ahead of the March 26 presidential elections. Russian officials have been at pains to present their case, opening a government briefing center and adopting some media relations techniques from their NATO rivals, such as footage of bombings.

Putin has brought in Sergei Yastrzhembsky, former adviser to Boris Yeltsin, to help spin the war in Chechnya.

The media "should take into account the challenges the nation is facing now," Yastrzhembsky was quoted as saying by Kommersant newspaper Friday. "When the nation mobilizes its forces to achieve some task, that imposes obligations on everyone including the media."

Alexander Voloshin, Putin's chief of staff, last week ordered security services to "make sure that foreign citizens and organizations do not play any part in the election campaign," Itar-Tass reported.

Voloshin wasn't specific about what kind of organizations, or which foreign countries posed the threat, saying "external forces must be prevented from drawing up and implementing" unspecified information agendas.

Voloshin stressed that elections would be held during "the concluding phase of the counterterrorist operation" in the North Caucasus.

"There are forces that are not interested in stability in the North Caucasus," Voloshin said. For this reason Russian security agencies must "forestall efforts by foreign special services to destabilize the situation in this region."

NTV television - the major non-government television station - said Sunday that it had been excluded from trips to Russian positions in the field for broadcasting an interview with a Russian officer who talked about significant losses in Chechnya.

NTV correspondent Yury Lipatov said military spokesmen had accused him of spreading lies and said they would no longer provide the network with information.

Lipatov said the move amounted to "censorship."

"One would not like to think that this is how all information gets to Moscow and how viewers of all the television stations are informed," he said during his broadcast.

"If you can hide one incident in which a column was struck and tens were killed and others missing in action, then you can hide a similar incident with a second column as well.

During the 1994-96 Chechnya war, hard-hitting coverage by NTV played a significant role in turning public opinion against the war, with reporting from the front line that refuted the rosy reports from military officials. This time around, however, NTV has been more cautious, but has still questioned government casualty figures.

Meanwhile, the editor of Moskovsky Komsomolets, Pavel Gusev, said that police had visited one of his reporters and threatened to detain him in a mental hospital in a town east of Moscow.

Alexander Khinshtein, with the help of his lawyer, fended off police attempts to take him to a mental hospital in Vladimir - about four hours from Moscow - Tuesday and has gone into hiding, Gusev said. The lawyer argued that since Khinshtein was off sick from work, the law did not permit him to be questioned.

Police said that the charge that led to the request for a psychiatric examination was a driving-license offense from 1997. His editors said this week's police action was prompted by Khinshtein's reporting.

Khinshtein has accused Boris Berezovsky of helping to finance Islamic militants fighting Russian troops in Chechnya. Khinshtein has attacked Berezovsky and Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo on his Sunday evening television show on TV Tsentr, a station controlled by Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, a Kremlin opponent.