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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

TV Changes Tune on Kosovo Coverage

If reality were judged from Russian television screens, what is happening in Yugoslavia just took a major turn.

Nearly two weeks into the NATO bombing campaign, Russian television suddenly began showing another side of the story in the Kosovo conflict.

On Sunday, the pictures of proud, courageous Serbs subjected to airstrikes by a senseless aggressor and fleeing their bombed-out homes made room on TV screens for grim images of Kosovo Albanian refugees forced from their villages by Serbian army and police forces.

In its weekly news summary and analysis program "Itogi," NTV television showed dramatic footage of civilians murdered during ethnic-cleansing operations in Kosovo, operations that had been alarming people in the West all week.

NTV broke the silence on ethnic cleansing, analysts said, and they expect other stations to follow.

Yevgeny Kiselyov, a respected journalist who creates and anchors "Itogi" and also serves as the chairman of NTV's board of directors, also was the first to openly acknowledge that Russian journalists in Serbia were closely monitored and their reports subjected to military censorship.

The analysts noted that what really changed in the Russian media's attitude toward covering the tragic events in Kosovo was awakening to the real political dangers at home.

"For two weeks Kiselyov paid no attention to the Albanians. Why did his eyes suddenly turned to them?" wondered Andrei Piontkovsky, director of the Center for Strategic Studies. "Because our liberal intelligentsia got scared that if they continued participating in the pan-Slavic screaming they would bring Communists back to power and end up in Lefortovo [prison]."

Vladimir Kulistikov, NTV chief editor, said the change was explained by the simple fact that the network finally was able to send its ace reporter, Pavel Lobkov, to Macedonia to get a first-hand account from ethnic Albanian refugees - an expensive project that the company finally found money for.

Western footage has been available, but the station apparently chose not to use it.

Kulistikov said NTV must make tough choices on how to make the best use of its limited budget.

"Our Western colleagues cannot understand it. We have to make choices," he said in a telephone interview. "Naturally, Russians are most interested in what is happening to Serbs. And to tell you the truth - I don't mean to sound cynical - but a picture of a burning city is a lot more impressive than an image of hungry people. We have plenty of our own hungry people around here."

Kiselyov agreed that his tougher line on "anti-NATO hysteria" in Russia was related to domestic politics.

"There are moments in our history when we have to think about our duty as citizens," he said. "I understand that the anti-NATO, anti-Western, anti-American hysteria could lead to a situation when we would have restored Communist Party rule and we would have to line up at [party] headquarters to get recommendations for every trip abroad."

The Communist Party and other leftist and nationalist groups have capitalized on the widespread opposition to the NATO airstrikes to stir up support.

Kiselyov said the first showing of the ethnic cleansing that Serbians were carrying out in Kosovo was not a major turn, but a continuation of "objective coverage of war" on NTV, Russia's only private national television network.

A week ago, Itogi carried a hazy historical commentary on Russia's involvement in Eastern Europe in recent decades asking viewers if they were ready "to overturn their political system in Russia, sack the president and the prime minister, all the military leaders and - in addition - to send its children into the meat grinder in response to the American airstrikes in far-away Serbia."

The commentary provoked protests from Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, one of the guests in a later segment on "Itogi," but it added little to the reporting on the situation of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

In another sign of shift in Russian public opinion, Monday's issue of the weekly newspaper Novaya Gazeta, which is known for its independent stands, carried a commentary by Piontkovsky questioning the wisdom of Russia's support for the Serbs.

Some Russian radio stations in their reviews of the morning's papers quoted Pionkovsky's piece, which blasted Russia for not taking the "victim's" side in the conflict and warned of reactionaries using the moment to restore their grip on the country.

And although the Novaya Gazeta editors took out his most critical comment - in which he compared Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's campaign against the Kosovar Albanians to Russia's blood bath in Chechnya - Piontkovsky said it took a lot of courage for the paper to carry his piece amid growing anti-American feelings in Russia.

Now that NTV has broken the silence on ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, the rest of Russia's networks - and in Russia, television is the medium that influences public opinion the most - are likely to follow, analysts said.

"The channels compete. ORT and RTR cannot ignore widely known facts. They understand that biased information will discredit them," said Yevgeny Volk of the Heritage Foundation's office in Moscow.

The change in media coverage was also an indication that the Russian government would soften its stand against NATO, he said."Everyone understands that NATO bombing is not good, but no one wants society's passions to boil over and sweep away everything in their path," Volk said. "Neither Yeltsin nor Primakov needs a strengthening of the Communists."

But it may take a while before the shift in media coverage changes the public's hostility toward NATO and the United States.

"I don't think it will have immediate effects, but slowly, it will change," noted Leonid Sedov, an analyst with the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion, or VTsIOM.

Less then a week ago, in a survey conducted by VTsIOM, 64 percent of people polled said that what is happening with Albanians in Kosovo is an "internal" issue for Yugoslavia.

Almost half, or 49 percent, of the 1,600 respondents said that their attitude toward the United States was either "negative" or "very negative," a major shift from December, when only 23 percent of Russians felt the same way.