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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Media Caught Up in Crisis 'Spin'

Choked off by official policy from direct sources of news about the Pervomaiskoye hostage crisis, Russia's newspapers and airwaves are carrying what seems clearly to be disinformation.


Three days before Russian troops stormed the village, Interfax, a news agency that almost every local and Western news organization looks to for fast and reliable information, reported that U.S. political sources supported the use of force in resolving the crisis. The U.S. Embassy denied the report.


NTV Independent Television's influential news show "Itogi," broadcast at 9 p.m. Sunday, reported as fact a radio transmission, intercepted by the Interior Ministry, between Shamil Basayev, who led the Chechen rebel raid on a Budyonnovsk hospital in June, and hostage crisis leader Salman Raduyev. The transmission reportedly revealed that the Chechens had devised plans to kill more female than male hostages. There has been no confirmation of the report.


That comes on top of the government statement that the storming of Pervomaiskoye, where more than 100 hostages are being held, was initiated Monday morning because Chechen rebels were executing their hostages. That information has not been corroborated by any of the freed hostages, and Russian officials have changed their stories about who was killed at least once since.


The use of disinformation by government sources, particularly at times of war or when lives are threatened, is scarcely unique to Russia. News briefings by the Western forces during the Gulf War of 1991 were peppered with deliberately distorted points.


Nevertheless, the suspect items concerning Pervomaiskoye are being broadcast or printed as facts, without any critical mention of the authenticity of the source.


"Unfortunately, sometimes our journalists allow themselves to be manipulated, or they count on the fact that if the information comes from the state, it must be true," said Josef Dzyaloshinsky, director of the Freedom of Information Commission, a joint project between the Glasnost Defense Fund and the Russian-American Press and Information Center.


Moreover, Soviet journalism habits die hard. Russian journalists, he said, "see themselves as people who are supposed to help [the authorities]. It's a delusion, but a very long-standing delusion."


The result, according to Izvestia television critic Irina Petrovskaya, is that inaccurate information is beamed into the public consciousness.


"This was thought up by our special services to justify their actions in Pervomaiskoye. How will we ever know?" Petrovskaya said. The U.S. Embassy in Moscow has strongly denied the Interfax report, which cited "sources close to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow." The report, issued Friday, said "U.S. administration officials and political figures" supported the establishment of a ring of Cossacks around Chechnya and said that Russia should remove rebel leader Dzhokhar Dudayev from Chechnya the way General Manuel Noriega was removed from Panama.


"The embassy categorically denies the statements attributed to us in the Interfax report," spokeswoman Olivia Hilton said.


Yevgeny Kiselyov, the host of "Itogi" and one of Russia's most influential journalists, could not be reached for comment Tuesday about the reported radio interception. NTV spokeswoman Masha Shakhala said all Kiselyov did was inform the public of news that had just reached him.