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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Television Coverage Comes of Age

MTMilitary officers attending a funeral for Colonel Konstantin Litvinov, 50, at the Mitinskoye Cemetery on Tuesday. Litvinov was among those held hostage in the theater.
Nine years ago, when troops loyal to President Boris Yeltsin blockaded and then stormed the parliament building, CNN decided to unscramble its signal in Moscow, and RTR state television relied, to a large extent, on CNN's on-the-spot, nonstop coverage.

In a sign of how far the Russian media have come, CNN used NTV's footage last week to tell the world about the unfolding hostage crisis.

"The work of Russian media has improved immeasurably compared to the previous terrorist acts and disasters," BBC regional analyst Steven Eke said on NTV television on Monday.

The hostage crisis became a test for many institutions, including the media. Several media employees, like Interfax's Olga Chernyak, who was the first to report the raid Wednesday night, became hostages inside the theater. Hundreds of journalists took turns camping outside the theater, waiting for bits and pieces of information. Several journalists ventured inside to talk to the armed, masked gunmen who had rigged the whole building with explosives.

In back offices, management -- often in close contact with the government -- had tough decisions to make. Do you air a telephone interview with a hostage-taker, which is forbidden by Russian law, while a refusal to do so may further endanger the lives of the hostages? If the government warns you not to report certain information that already has been made public, what do you do?

"Of course, there were many miscalculations and journalists were clearly under stress," said Anna Kachkayeva, media analyst with Radio Liberty. "Much was the result of government bodies not providing information on time, when the vacuum had to be filled with sometimes incompetent commentaries. But overall, journalists handled the situation in a commendable way."

News organizations mobilized to cover the crisis. NTV and TVS television and Ekho Moskvy radio provided nonstop coverage, while NTV also switched to round-the-clock broadcasting. Correspondents worked 12-hour shifts on the site. Channel One and Rossia (formerly ORT and RTR) had frequent live reports and changed their programming schedule to replace entertainment with more serious films and documentaries. Entertainment-only CTC changed its programming and included news programs in its schedule for three days. Commercials were cut back.

With the Press Ministry moving to regulate coverage and companies employing self-censorship, the crisis reignited a debate over where free speech ends and security concerns take over.

Last week's crisis was unlike previous hostage crises in Russia, such as in Budyonnovsk in 1995 and Kizlyar in 1996, which took place far away from the capital. On the one hand, that meant no live coverage could be provided. On the other, no terrorism-related media policies were yet in place, and Russian channels aired interviews with Shamil Basayev and other hostage-takers. The explosions in Moscow in 1999 were also different, because the media were covering them only after the fact and could have no effect on the development of events.

How to cover a crisis is often a subject of discussion in media circles, particularly since Operation Desert Storm in 1991. International news companies, such as the BBC and CNN, have tough internal guidelines. The U.S. government has developed a sophisticated way of controlling the media through a combination of access restrictions and continual briefings by government spokesmen feeding journalists their version of events. Just four days before Oct. 23, the Commission on Radio and Television Policy, a group of U.S., Russian and Central European media executives, discussed the subject in Vienna and issued its recommendations.

Yet Russian media were unprepared and developed their crisis coverage policies as they went. "Everything was spontaneous," NTV deputy head of news Savik Shuster said Tuesday. "Now we have to develop such plans. It is very important."

Other media officials also have begun to speak of a need to draw up rules for crises to come. Eduard Sagalayev, president of the National Association of Broadcasters, on Tuesday proposed drawing up a memorandum to be signed by journalists together with their contracts.

Any coverage of a hostage crisis, but particularly real-time television and radio coverage, presents journalists with a great degree of responsibility and a need to balance an alarmed public's right to know against the hostages' safety and broader security concerns.

"War and free speech are absolutely incompatible," said Igor Yakovenko, the secretary of the Union of Journalists of Russia, who has previously criticized the government for its steps to rule the media. "To the extent to which this crisis had elements of war in it, the limitations of free speech are acceptable."

Media executives said their top priority in the days of the crisis was the medical principle "Do no harm."

Shortly after the theater was seized, semi-state Channel One broadcast a live interview with "Nord Ost" producer Alexander Tsekalo, in which he said he had just been briefing the Federal Security Service on the detailed plan of the theater and repeated it on the air. Other channels broadcast the movement of troops around the theater. After that episode, Channel One management "decided to introduce very tough self-censorship," its general director Konstantin Ernst was quoted as saying in Tuesday's Kommersant.

Igor Tabakov / MT

Colonel Litvinov's death certificate lists the official cause of death as "unclear."

Also on the first night, NTV all but aired an interview with a hostage-taker, when an anchor asked a hostage who was talking on her mobile phone to pass the phone to a gunman. The man could be heard but then the connection was said to be interrupted.

Shuster said the control room was about to turn off the voice when the connection was lost. He said "there were many gestures" from NTV employees to turn off the voice. The episode also brought home that the hostages who were allowed to make calls were speaking "literally at gunpoint," he said.

Media sources and analysts contend that a lot of mistakes were made in the first hours of the crisis, when people did not yet realize how closely the hostage-takers were following the media coverage and what effect a careless word or picture could have.

During the first night, journalists also played the unlikely role of intermediary between hostage-takers and the government. Maria Shkolnikova, a doctor who was among the hostages, established a connection with journalists and Ren-TV general director Dmitry Lesnevsky was in constant touch with her by phone, relaying the hostage-takers' demands to the government's crisis center and making the first attempts to negotiate a release of hostages and deliver food and water to the victims.

By midday Thursday, however, the coverage was largely under control, as the government opened a regular supply of news from the crisis center and media management formulated its policies.

NTV said there were two noes in its approach: no hostage-takers on the air and no pictures that could disclose the location of troops, which pertained primarily to shots from high points.

In the early hours of Friday, NTV correspondents Sergei Dedukh and Anton Peredelsky were invited to the theater by Movsar Barayev's people and the channel was the first to air footage from inside. The exclusive report was shown on all channels, but the Barayev interview was not aired until the crisis was resolved.

Some television commentaries came in for criticism, including those discussing possible storming scenarios. Izvestia television critic Irina Petrovskaya singled out Mikhail Leontyev for his vociferously anti-Chechen comment on Channel One, which, she said, could have provoked the terrorists.

By Friday, there was a backlash against the media. State Duma Deputy Alexei Mitrofanov called for the government to ban media access to the site, but his proposal did not gain enough votes in the Duma. Faction leaders discussed the possible introduction of censorship in a meeting with President Vladimir Putin on Friday afternoon.

Several retired secret service officers called for stopping or censoring media coverage of the crisis. Veterans of Alpha special forces called on journalists to exercise "great caution." Kremlin-connected spin doctor Gleb Pavlovsky said on Ekho Moskvy that the government should restrict media access to the site.

At this time, the Press Ministry warned that it would enforce the new anti-extremism law, which bans the publication of terrorists' statements, and then shut down the small television company Moskovia for several hours.

Ekho Moskvy, whose anchors spoke -- with great caution -- to a hostage-taker, was not censored, but the Press Ministry threatened to shut down its web site. After the station removed the text of the interview from the site, the warning was rescinded. The ministry also rebuked Mayak radio and state-owned Rossiiskaya Gazeta for publishing a front-page photo of a victim's body being dragged out of the theater.

When journalist Anna Politkovskaya emerged from the theater Friday evening and passed on the hostage-takers' demand for troops to begin withdrawing from Chechnya, TV-Center television was the only one to air her statement. A source in NTV said the channel was resolutely forbidden "at a very high level" to report Politkovskaya's statement. Another source familiar with the situation said that Press Minister Mikhail Lesin, who was seen on Friday inspecting the situation around the theater, was in permanent contact with the heads of television channels Friday night.

Media sources said that late Friday, Lesin warned them that there could be some developments overnight that should not be broadcast even if they were reported by news agencies -- to avoid triggering violence.

Shortly after midnight, television channels stopped broadcasting from the site and showed films.

After the storming, there was a gap between the pictures television showed -- lifeless bodies being carried out of the theater -- and initial official statements that no gas was used. Then television channels showed FSB footage of the dead hostage-takers, including the bloody, bullet-ridden body of Barayev, with an upright, uncorked bottle of Hennessy cognac next to him, apparently a plant.

"It was embarrassing to see how lovingly the close-ups of the terrorists' corpses were shown," prominent anchor Vladimir Pozner said. "I was told that there had been such an instruction," Kommersant quoted him as saying.

Pozner called for increased responsibility of journalists as opposed to official censorship. "Journalists have neither the moral nor the legal right to become a public podium for bandits," he said. "Journalists have no right to conceal information -- it is not a journalists' function. But they have to bear responsibility for everything said and shown."

Deputy Press Minister Mikhail Seslavinsky said Tuesday that the "unpleasant" measures the ministry had to take were preventive. "It had to be done to prevent a more acute situation, when criticism of the media could have reached a critical point and tougher measures would have been taken," Interfax quoted him as saying at a session of the National Association of Broadcasters.

Television viewers appeared to have watched all the major channels without giving clear preference to any one. According to TNS/GallupMedia, the ratings of leading television channels from Wednesday to Saturday did not differ much from the average, except for a several percentage-point jump in TVS's share.

But when the time for summing up the events came on Sunday, NTV's "Namedni" was the clear market leader -- 17.27 percent of all Russians watched Leonid Parfyonov's program. Earlier in October, 9 percent was considered a huge success for the program. Blockbusters or leading crime series usually yield ratings of 12 or 13 percent.