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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Dagestan Is Tightly Scripted For TV




Russian federal forces may be far from destroying Chechen-led rebels in Dagestan. But they are winning another war: the propaganda war.


That is partly thanks to new Press Minister Mikhail Lesin, who has tried to impose order from the beginning.


Earlier this week, the Press Ministry scolded all leading Russian television channels for showing footage of the rebel leader Shamil Basayev. ORT was singled out for particular criticism when the ministry warned the channel, in a written statement, that it was violating the media law by broadcastings appeals for the takeover of power and the destruction of the country's territorial integrity.


Basayev was shown on ORT on Monday saying that Russia's "yoke forced Moslems to take up arms" and that "Russia must withdraw not only from Dagestan, but also from the entire Caucasus."


"Who are we giving the possibility to speak?" Lesin said Wednesday on RTR television. "It is as if a contract killer has been given the chance to speak in the media before he goes out to kill, saying, 'I will now go to carry out illegal actions.'"


The Russian government has done its best to prevent the rebels' message from getting out. Federal forces on Wednesday bombed two television and radio transmitters used by the rebels and shut down a private communications company near Makhachkala, which reportedly provided cellular telephones for the rebels, Itar-Tass reported, citing the military press center in Dagestan's capital.


If the Russians are winning the propaganda war, that's also because no one is stepping forward to challenge the official version of events.


Kidnappings have been rampant in the North Caucasus since the Chechen war ended in 1996, so Russian and foreign media are unwilling to dispatch their reporters to the conflict zone for fear of having to buy them back.


Defense and Interior ministry officials thus have an easy time spinning the news.


The government appears to have learned a lesson from the 1994-96 war in Chechnya - when the rebels won the sympathies of reporters, who were often shut out and misled by Russian military commanders - and from NATO's ability to influence public opinion during the recent operation in Yugoslavia.


During the Dagestan campaign, Russian government officials have tried to win over the media by holding regular press conferences and being more helpful to reporters in Dagestan.


This time around, moreover, the media does not need much persuasion.


Vladimir Kulistikov, the director of NTV's news service - which during the Chechnya war was vehemently critical of the federal forces - said the two campaigns have nothing in common.


Chechnya was the "mass popular uprising against the system" and Dagestan is an "aggression of Islamic bandits," Kulistikov said Thursday in a telephone interview. He said that since the war, Chechens have lost all credibility with Russian reporters.


Over the past two week's, the quickly-set-up press center in Makhachkala has been one of the main sources of information on the fighting. The center has supplied the media with assertions of the separatists' imminent defeat and heavy losses.


Its credibility, though, has sometimes been questionable. At one point, it reported that federal forces had wounded rebel leader Khattab and captured his "interpreter." Those claims were proved false when The Associated Press reported that Khattab was unhurt and spoke fluent Russian.


On Thursday, however, just days after Russian television broadcast a Chechen-produced tape showing Khattab with a small bandage on his wrist, Deputy Interior Minister Igor Zubov played the old song again at a press briefing, saying that Khattab was seriously wounded and was hospitalized in Chechnya.


"Bandit formations have had huge losses, far larger than those figures published in the press and on Internet," Zubov said. He said 40 Russian troops have been killed and 160 wounded, while the rebels' death toll runs in the hundreds.


The rebels have set up their own press center, which posts its releases on a web site. On Thursday, the rebels claimed to have lost only 15 fighters during the past two weeks and to have killed 450 Russian soldiers.


Zubov said the web site was set up by Movladi Udugov, the former spokesman for the Chechen government.


Alexander Barinov, the crime editor at the Vremya MN newspaper and the man responsible for coverage of the situation in Dagestan, said that sorting out the propagandistic statements of both sides in the conflict is part of his daily routine.


"One side churns out pure propaganda, the other side is doing the same," Barinov said in a telephone interview. "We have to have an adequate attitude toward it and divide everything by 10."


Barinov said he has to rely on reporting by his stringer in Dagestan, who does not want his name published in the newspaper, as well as on statements by the army and Interior Ministry press service in Makhachkala, and a variety of information provided by Federal Security Service officers in private conversations with his reporters both in Moscow and in Makhachkala.


Hence, the "Viktor Paukov" byline, which appears in the paper, is a fictitious name for his department's "collective work," Barinov said.


During the 1994-96 Chechnya war, private NTV television broke new ground by providing independent reporting from Chechnya, bringing to millions of Russian homes a picture of the vast incompetence of Russian military commanders and the devastating campaign against the civilian population in Chechnya.


Chechen militants stood out as brave independence fighters. The Kremlin was so outraged by NTV's coverage of the Chechen campaign that it seriously considered revoking the company's broadcast license.


During the past 14 days, it has been a dramatically different picture on NTV. Similar to other Russian media, it refers to the rebels as "bandits" and gives full airtime to Russian officials' statements and to footage of troops in actions. Viewers get to see tanks rolling through Dagestani villages, artillery guns firing, and helicopters and airplanes shooting at what are described as villages controlled by Basayev and Khattab.


Kulistikov, the head of news at NTV, praised the Russian armed forces for improving cooperation with journalists.


He said NTV will under no circumstances send any of its reporters to the scene of the fighting.


Yelena Masyuk, NTV's leading war reporter, who once shot sensational footage of Chechen positions and interviewed Basayev in his camp shortly after his raid on Budyonnovsk, was one of many Russian and foreign reporters who were taken hostage by Chechen gunmen after the war. She was freed only after a substantial ransom was paid.


"We have paid big money for our reporters, been through a psychological shock, had to face their parents in this situation," Kulistikov said. "Now I will not go for any adventure, for any risk."


"We have learned a lot from the experience of Chechnya," Kulistikov said. "Now we know what Movladi Udugov and his statements are really worth."


Kulistikov said that footage provided by the fighters would only be included in NTV broadcasts after its authenticity was thoroughly verified.