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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ministry Drafts Guidelines for Media

MTPositioned behind a security cordon, photographers focusing their long lenses on the Dubrovka theater center on Oct. 24.
The Press Ministry on Monday joined the fuss over media coverage in the aftermath of the hostage crisis and issued its version of proposed guidelines for journalists covering emergency situations.

The list of 16 recommendations, which was posted on the ministry's web site, covers issues from the conditions under which terrorists can be interviewed to the necessity of being "tactful" in dealing with terrorists' victims and their relatives.

It is described as a draft for discussion by the Media Industrial Committee -- a group formed by media bosses earlier this year as a lobby group for the media industry, which the ministry wants to assume responsibility for self-regulation.

Issued just days after the State Duma approved controversial amendments to the media law that make it illegal to air terrorists' statements or disclose the tactics used in anti-terrorist operations, the Press Ministry's draft re-emphasizes the need to abide strictly by the law on mass media and the law on fighting terrorism.

Some sections copy guidelines that have been developed in the West either by media companies, such as the BBC, or by research groups or journalists' organizations, including the Union of Journalists of Russia. Others -- such as a recommendation to be aware that hostages may "turn into an instrument for putting pressure on the state and on public opinion" -- appear to have been inspired specifically by the Oct. 23-26 hostage crisis at the theater on Dubrovka.

During the crisis, Russian media aired the statements of hostages pleading for the theater not to be stormed and for their relatives to protest on Red Square against the war in Chechnya.

Media sources said that NTV's "Svoboda Slova" program on Oct. 25, on which hostages' relatives appeared, was one of the programs that irritated the Kremlin. While media critics largely praised NTV's coverage of the crisis, the company was reportedly singled out for government criticism. Sources in NTV, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that general director Boris Jordan was summoned for meetings at the Press Ministry and the presidential administration last week.

NTV denied it was under any pressure from the government. "We received no formal, concrete complaints," NTV spokesman Oleg Sapozhnikov said Monday. "But we don't want to discuss the rumors."

In light of Duma and government efforts to restrict news coverage, the Moscow media community was alarmed by a raid on the muckraking Versia weekly by Federal Security Service investigators Friday night, just hours before an issue that raised unpleasant questions about the theater's storming was to be sent to the printers.

Versia editor Rustam Arifdzhanov said Monday that he was not convinced there was a connection between the raid, which was officially connected to an article the newspaper published in May, and the crisis. Arifdzhanov said the issue came out unchanged Monday because he was able to delay the confiscation of the newspaper's server by two hours and copy the files onto disks.

When asked about the Press Ministry's recommendations, Arifdzhanov said they were confusing. "Everything is mixed up there -- a 'memo to a young reporter,' demagoguery, quite reasonable statements and absolutely naive things," he said. "What does it mean to "avoid reporting details of the work of specialists involved in saving lives"? During the anti-terrorist operation -- maybe, but afterward -- I am sorry! Does this mean we should not discuss and raise questions about the secret services' actions? The special forces exist not for the sake of special forces, but for the sake of society, and it is our duty to discuss their performance."

Arifdzhanov stressed that the government should make a distinction between events such as a hostage crisis and the war in Chechnya, which is also officially described as an anti-terrorist operation. "If these recommendations apply to the war in Chechnya, they are absolutely unacceptable," he said.

All media officials interviewed Monday said that although the Press Ministry's recommendations contained some reasonable and generally accepted standards, it is up to journalists themselves to determine their crisis policies, not the government.

"Developing the norms of journalists' behavior is a prerogative of the journalistic community," said Mikhail Fedotov, a lawyer and secretary of the Union of Journalists of Russia. He said the Media Industrial Committee is a business lobby group, not a journalists' union, and thus is an inappropriate place to discuss the Press Ministry's draft.

The Union of Journalists drafted its own ethical principles for journalists covering terrorist acts and anti-terrorist operations a year ago.

"For the ministry to interfere in this issue is at least unethical and at most a political mistake," Fedotov said. "Because if journalists follow the quite reasonable ideas that the Press Ministry's recommendations contain, they will be told they are bowing to government pressure. And if journalists bow to government pressure, they will not be trusted."

Recommendations on Media Coverage of Emergency Situations That Endanger People's Lives (Draft)
Taking into account the mass media's desire to be on top of things in order to ensure public access to reliable information, the journalistic community considers it necessary to create a stable system of necessary steps and principles in covering emergency situations where people's lives are in danger. Recent experience has allowed us to develop the following recommendations:
1. In covering emergency situations, media organizations and journalists should strictly abide by existing legislation on mass media and on fighting terrorism.
2. Always keep in mind that media reports are accessible to everybody, including those who deliberately create dangerous situations. Their reaction to your reports could be unpredictable.
3. Avoid reporting details of the work of specialists involved in saving lives.
4. Considering that one of terrorists' main aims is usually to get access to media with the purpose of voicing their position, journalists must:
not interview terrorists upon their [journalists'] own initiative;
not give them the opportunity to speak in live broadcasts without consulting in advance with law enforcement agencies;
remember that live broadcasts can be used by terrorists to pass coded signals to accomplices in other locations;
be prepared to suspend live, on-site broadcasts;
not comment on or analyze terrorists' demands at a dilettante level or without professional consultation;
keep in mind that the hostages held by terrorists are also hostages of the situation who sometimes turn into an instrument for putting pressure on the state and on public opinion.
5. Do not try to gain access to secret information belonging to special services carrying out counterterrorism operations. Accidentally letting something slip could not only undermine the operation to free hostages but could also lead to the death of many people, including those trying to help.
6. Keep in mind that saving lives is more important than the public's right to know. Openly state that some information is off-limits because of security concerns.
7. Remember that your obligation is to inform the public, not to sow panic. Be mindful not only of what is said but how it is said.
8. In covering the news, do not impede the work of law enforcement, medical and other officials whose job is to save lives.
9. Try to quickly assess the importance of particular information and how dangerous it could be in the unfolding situation:
remember that the international community rejects ties between terrorism and factors of race, religion and nationality;
do not aim to intentionally insult and humiliate terrorists who hold the lives of hostages in their hands;
do not use unverified sources of information.
10. Be tactful and sensitive toward the feelings of the relatives and loved ones of victims of terrorism.
11. Avoid excessive sensationalism and graphic imagery in showing cruelty and violence; be respectful of the moral and religious sensibilities of your audience.
12. Do not allow a montage of documentary materials that could warp or invert the meaning of what is happening.
13. Do not ask people involved in the dangerous situation to do anything in order to get "good" photo or video pictures.
14. Do not attempt to become a participant in a dangerous situation. Do not take on the role of intermediary.
15. If a journalist happens to be among the negotiators, he or she must refrain from any publications until after the crisis is resolved.
16. Inform official bodies in a timely manner of any plans that you learn of for conducting or furthering terrorist attacks even if they seem unlikely.