Beslan Anniversary Highlights State of Russia's Media

On the second anniversary of the Beslan school siege, the Russian media says unanswered questions about the tragedy illuminate the gap between the Russian people and their government.

But with the Russian media "in shackles," in the words of Washington Post columnist Masha Lipman, criticism of the government is muted and directed mostly at the security forces, never at President Vladimir Putin.

The Moscow News's Beslan anniversary story, written by a U.S. National Public Radio correspondent, was more pointed than most about the Russian military action that freed hundreds of hostages but at the same time claimed the lives of 331 people, including 186 children.

"Why did authorities use such heavy weaponry while children were still inside the school? Why didn't they try to negotiate a nonviolent end to the siege?" asked writer Kelly McEvers. "Two trials and three investigations later, no high-ranking Russian official has been held responsible for mishandling the siege."

Kommersant, the country's last independent daily, reported that a member of the parliamentary committee investigating the tragedy had issued his own findings critical of the government: "The first explosions were caused by grenades used in an attack by Russian security forces attempting to kill the terrorist who was in charge of the bombs," according to Yury Savelev. "These grenades also could have caused the fire in the building and the deaths of the majority of the hostages."

Novosti Political commentator Andrei Kolesnikov cited a recent poll on Beslan to argue that the Russian public has only a "reserved trust" of its government: "The absolute majority of Russians - 52% - have a negative opinion of the authorities' actions during the hostage rescue operation," he writes. "They are joined by another 8%, who are convinced that the public has been misled deliberately.

Kolesnikov notes that a rally in downtown Moscow commemorating the Beslan tragedy was broken up by authorities on Monday who said it interfered with a municipal celebration. "This is exactly the kind of approach that compels the public to call into doubt the official interpretation of the events," said Kolesnikov.

The "strange stories" of Beslan illuminate a government allergic to accountability, says Moscow Times columnist Yulia Latynina.

One example cited by Latynina: "Hostage accounts spoke of a man named Ali, who they said was a deputy colonel, among the militants. Just after Beslan, prosecutors said that one person involved in the siege was the notorious militant Magas, a.k.a. Magomed Yevloyev, a.k.a. Ali Taziyev. Taziyev-Magas' body was identified at the time. But a year later, the Interior Ministry of Ingushetia accused Ali Taziyev -- apparently resuscitated -- of the murder of regional Deputy Interior Minister Dzhibrail Kostoyev. Investigators refused repeated requests from hostages to see a photograph of Taziyev."

Russia is "a country of unlearned lessons," said commentator Andrey Riskin in the Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper on Monday: "The authorities have not drawn the necessary conclusions from the events [in Beslan]]," he believes. Riskin reports that the military has established special forces around the country to respond to large-scale terrorist attacks but he adds "no changes have taken place in the political component of the problem."

"The political component of the problem." That's about as harsh and specific as anti-government commentary gets in the mainstream Russian media these days.

Kommersant Changes Hands

The sale of Kommersant "threatens to alter irrevocably the country's media landscape by putting the country's last independent-minded national daily into the hands of a billionaire who is thought to be close to First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev," said the Moscow Times on Monday.

The buyer is Alisher Usmanov, whom Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty describes as "a metals magnate with close ties to the Kremlin." The price, which includes the Kommersant book publishing business, was reported to be $200-$300 million.

Kommersant's Russian-language print edition is known for its political reporting. The English-language Web site, while thin and indifferently translated, provides at least a flavor of independent thinking on topics like Beslan and Ukrainian presidential politics.

In recent years other politically connected businessmen "have picked up the dailies Izvestia and Nezavisimaya Gazeta in recent years, with a corresponding change in the tenor -- and drop in the quantity -- in coverage of the federal government," noted the St. Petersburg Times.

"The operating assumption for the new ownership appears to have been that, when it comes to the government, 'If you can't think of anything good to say, don't say anything at all."

Kommersant editors said they were skeptical of Usmanov's claim that he would not tamper with the newspaper's editorial policy.

"It would be too early to say now whether I believe promises that the editorial policy of Kommersant will be left unchanged," chief editor Vladislav Borodulin told RIA-Novosti, according to the Moscow Times.

By Jefferson Morley |  September 7, 2006; 9:27 AM ET  | Category:  Democracy , Europe
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It's truly amazing that anyone could be so misguided as to suggest that there would have been any possibility of negotiating with the terrorists!

That such a misguided person is a journalist is not so amazing.

Posted by: Rufus | September 7, 2006 10:51 AM

I am not sure you keep a policy of not negotiating when you have hundreds of children's lives at stake. Kidnappers have to eat, etc. Wouldn't these be great negotiating points

Posted by: Bill | September 7, 2006 11:33 AM

Are you even familiar with the Chechnya issue, or how the Beslan siege occured? It's safe to say that the Russians created the Chechnya crisis in the way they have handled the region, and then the "terrorists" who took over the school were able to slip past Russian border security. Finally, most of the deaths in the Beslan siege were caused by the Russians themselves. On top of all this, there has been deliberate government cover ups about the whole thing.

Really, the only thing this does is show that the Russian government has little regard for its own citizens. Ironically, perhaps that deters future attacks, but it sure isn't humane.

Posted by: RiverGuy | September 7, 2006 11:43 AM

Negotiations are always important in that they give you some perspective and information about the other side. Talking doesn't always result in agreement, but it may help you make informed judgements on the problem. Talking worth a try!

Posted by: P. J. Casey | September 7, 2006 01:37 PM

River Guy suggests Rufus doesn't understand the Chechnya issue or how the Beslan seige occured. Well, I do.
The Chechnyans crossed the border and kidnapped two Russian soldiers and took them back across the border. Then to free the hostages, the Ruskys undertook a month-long saturation bombing of nearly all the Chechnya infrastructure, killed hundred of Chechnyans, destroyed thousands of apartment buildings and homes and the residents possesions including cars,forced hundreds of thousands to flee for their lives, deliberately dumped 15,000 tons of bunker fuel onto the beaches and resorts, destroyed hospitals and blocked food and medicals supplies, journalists, rescue and aid workers.
That's why the righteous people of the World despise the Russians.
Thanks to Morley and the Post for staying on top of these atrocities and reminding us of the value of a free Press.


Posted by: Monte | September 7, 2006 02:08 PM

P.S. And they refused to negotiate!!

Posted by: Monte | September 7, 2006 02:12 PM

Monte, I couldn't have described it better myself.

Posted by: RiverGuy | September 7, 2006 02:14 PM

The deaths in the Beslan massacre were caused by the terrorists. What was there to negotiate with people who attacked a primary school with weapons and then prepared themselves to detonate and destroy children? There is no doubt that the Russian solution was brutal but this is the only way to deal with this salafist filth.

Posted by: William Howard | September 7, 2006 05:11 PM

So you're saying, that if a terrorist took over a U.S. elementary school (God forbid), that your child, among 900 other children and teachers, was in, you would support immediately launching rocket propelled grenades into the building, no talking, questions, anything?

Posted by: RiverGuy | September 7, 2006 05:37 PM

To understand the difference between Russian media and Western media, take some time to watch "Russia Today" (RT) on television.

Russia Today

Then, watch "Deutsche Welle" (DW) on television.

Deutsche Welle

RT is the Russian equivalent of American PBS, and DW is the German equivalent of American PBS. If you are in the United States, you can likely watch RT and DW on your local PBS station, but sometimes commerical stations will carry both satellite feeds.

Compare RT, DW, and the BBC. Notice that DW often reports stories that are critical of the German government. Of course, the BBC often broadcasts reports that put the British government in a bad light.

However, RT has never (since I started watching it last year) broadcast any story that is critical of the Russian government. Like DW and BBC, RT depends 100% on funding from the government.

To be fair, RT significantly better than Al-Jazeera, the Islamic version of Nazi radio run by Joseph Goebbels in 1941-1945.

Posted by: Atheist, Boston, USA | September 7, 2006 06:00 PM

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