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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Resurgence of Lies and Disinformation

At the end of August, the official government newspaper, Rossiiskaya Gazeta, published a sensational article about the bombing of the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia that left one person dead and several wounded. Citing an unnamed source in the Georgian Defense Ministry, the newspaper reported that a Georgian plane piloted by a Lieutenant Georgy Rusteli had dropped the deadly ordnance on his own people.

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The Rossiiskaya Gazeta article named no sources confirming Georgia's responsibility for the bombing. It included no comment from Russian experts who could have confirmed or denied the version offered by the anonymous Georgian source.

The only "proof" offered by the author of the article was that the Georgian plane had supposedly been repainted, adding Russian air force markings to the tail and wings. The article does not make clear, however, why the plane needed to be disguised when, according to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe mission in Georgia, the bombing was carried out at 5 a.m., when the plane's markings would have been invisible from the ground, much less in the air at high speed.

As it turned out, Rossiiskaya Gazeta did not exactly break the story. One day earlier, the web site had published an article by political editor Alexander Agamov and military analyst Oleg Petrovsky titled "Dropping Bombs Under a Foreign Flag." This article included key "details" of the incident. It named the pilot, Lieutenant Georgy Rusteli, the mechanic Vazha Todiya, provided the identification number of the plane and described how it was repainted. Rossiiskaya Gazeta failed to cite, passing its report off as an exclusive.

A further search for information on the story revealed that the next day, two more newspapers -- Nezavisimaya Gazeta and Novye Izvestia -- ran articles on Lieutenant Rusteli that included ironic editorializing and denials from the Georgian side. Articles published in Komsomolskaya Pravda and Trud, as well as two government-owned newspapers, Krasnaya Zvezda and Parlamentskaya Gazeta, gave the impression that reporters from these papers had actually been on the ground in Georgia and had witnessed the early-morning bombing in person.

Then the other side of the story began to emerge. Novye Izvestia deputy editor Sergei Agafonov told Ekho Moskvy radio that Rusteli is not even a Georgian name. Teimuraz Gamtsemlidze, a counselor at the Georgian Embassy in Moscow, confirmed this in an interview given to the RIA Novosti news agency. And finally, the OSCE mission in Georgia announced that the planes involved in the bombing had flown in from the north -- that is, from Russia.

This is not the first time that the Russian press has published information calculated to convince the public that Russia bears no blame for its various military conflicts. Actual news outlets are normally employed in this effort: the Itar-Tass, Ria Novosti and Interfax news agencies. The role of "informed source" is often played by presidential assistant Sergei Yastrzhembsky and the spokesman for Russian forces in Chechnya, FSB Colonel Ilya Shabalkin. Thanks to these informed sources the Russian public learned that Chechen rebels were producing poisoned vodka, and that they were planning to carry out terrorist attacks during President George W. Bush's visit to Russia. On May 14, Shabalkin announced that "Chechen brigadier-generals are prepared to surrender, but they are fearful of revenge attacks."

On Feb. 20, Colonel Shabalkin accused Novaya Gazeta reporter Anna Politkovskaya of writing about Chechnya as a way of paying off her debts to the Soros Foundation. On April 1, the FSB announced that it had thwarted the planned kidnapping of journalists from RenTV. A similar announcement followed on Aug. 27, when "Chechen police officers foiled an attempt by gangsters to abduct a group of TV journalists." In neither case were the journalists actually named; the second announcement didn't even mention the TV station involved.

The military contends that it is defending journalists from kidnappers, but fails to mention that the last time a Russian journalist was abducted -- Andrei Babitsky in January 2000 -- the military itself was to blame. More likely this is a way for the army brass in Chechnya to frighten journalists out of trying to obtain information independently.

The military prevents journalists from reporting the real story in Chechnya, and in return it offers only its own and often absurd version of events. When soldiers carry out provocations like the bombing in Georgia, reporters friendly to the Kremlin and the intelligence services are brought in to justify them.

In late 1999, the Kremlin dealt a blow to the credibility of foreign journalists in Russia when Frank Hoefling, a reporter for German television station N24, was given a videotape showing the burial of Chechen fighters. The tape had been made by Izvestia journalist Oleg Blotsky. I don't know what the exact arrangements were, but Blotsky immediately came out and accused Hoefling of slander. Hoefling was fired as a result, and Blotsky laid low for a while. He turned up a year later as the author of a biography of Vladimir Putin. This year he brought out a second book on the president. At a press conference he revealed that the idea for the book had come from Yastrzhembsky.

During the first Chechen war, the level of disinformation in the Russian press was high, but it varied according to the author's reliance on official sources. Journalists could still travel to Chechnya and do their own reporting. All that changed with Putin's election as president. Kremlin bureaucrats began to talk more and more about the greatness of Russia, about Putin's role and the role of the state. The information security doctrine, signed in September 2000, became the cornerstone of the government's new information policy. As it turned out, the Kursk tragedy and the censorship that ensued was the beginning of a new era in government-press relations.

Most news coverage of the Kursk relied on anonymous sources or named military officials who were lying through their teeth. The authorities brought pressure to bear on those newspapers that questioned the official line.

The old Soviet tradition of serving up softball questions for the president has been revived in Russian journalism. Witness, for example, the recent coverage of Putin's 50th birthday. Furthermore, Russian TV has clearly figured out which camera angles most flatter the president.

Defeat in the Chechen campaign is perceived by the military as more than a personal tragedy. The top brass lives in fear of being sacked and losing prestige and privileges. Lying may only postpone the inevitable, but for now it seems the only way to preserve the image of the "world's greatest army." The real losers in all this are the journalists. Some believe they have no choice but to bend to the military's will. Most believe that lies are now the only source of information available to them.

A couple of weeks ago, a group of journalists from Moscow's liberal press flew to Tbilisi to meet with politicians, government officials and Georgian journalists. When Georgian reporters asked why the Russian press publishes so much blatant disinformation, the Russians replied that no other information is available.

The hardest thing was talking with ordinary people on the streets who were concerned by the news programs on the state-controlled RTR and ORT television stations.

What they don't know is that the Soviet lie has been revived in the Russian press, and that, just as during the Soviet era, the best way to find out what's really going on is to tune into foreign radio stations. The government hasn't started jamming them yet.

Oleg Panfilov, director of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.