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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Only Responsibility Earns Press Freedom

The journalism profession around the world has a golden rule as inexorable as a law of nature: If journalists don't hold themselves in check, the state will do it for them. This postulate is the basis for journalistic ethics and the self-regulatory bodies formed by the press in democratic countries.

I have the feeling that this is not the first time in the last few years that I've started an article with these words. It happens every time the press here and abroad kicks up a racket about restrictions on freedom of speech in Russia and a government crackdown on the Russian press.

In the aftermath of the "Nord Ost" crisis, the restrictions and the racket are back. The State Duma passed amendments to the mass media law that limit the freedom of the press to cover anti-terrorist operations, and the Press Ministry circulated instructions on how to cover such situations "properly."

I have no problem with the new restrictions themselves. Not because I like them or agree with them. It's just silly to complain about the laws of nature; that's like taking offense because wolves feed on sheep.

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But all the racket is a little annoying. What did we expect?

When the special forces raid was over, journalists -- myself included -- had some harsh words of criticism for the authorities. How was it possible for the government to be caught so totally unawares by a terrorist act on this scale during what amounts to a time of war?

Why were other government agencies unprepared to treat the hostages once they were freed? The government does deserve a measure of leniency, however. The scale of this hostage-taking was unprecedented, after all. Nothing like this had ever happened before in any country, so Russian law enforcement had to start from scratch in extremely uncertain conditions.

For its part, the press went about its work quite responsibly during the crisis, but it nevertheless deserves even harsher criticism than the authorities. In extreme conditions, by a process of trial and error -- and some of the errors were unforgivable -- we finally figured out what everyone else had long known.

For the mass media, covering terrorist attacks, hostage-takings and natural disasters is all part of the job. The journalism profession has developed guidelines for covering these kinds of events, with their attendant death and suffering. And it's not as though these guidelines were under lock and key somewhere.

During the first days of the crisis I came across Russians translations of the guidelines set by a number of American television networks, the recommendations of the Poynter Institute -- a private journalism school in Florida -- and the Vyshegrad recommendations, developed by Hungarian experts sponsored by the BBC.

These materials cover every aspect of the issue: cooperation between journalists and law enforcement, approaches to interviewing terrorists, advice on how to deal with people who are in a state of shock, and so on.

There is no room for amateurism in this kind of work. We journalists are responsible not only to our audience; we also bear responsibility for our own professional freedom. In matters of this gravity, the state does not forgive even minor mistakes. And if journalists don't get the message and learn to hold themselves in check, the state will restrict their freedom even more.

Alexei Pankin is the editor of Sreda, a magazine for media professionals (www.internews.ru/sreda)