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Russians censor media

MOSCOW – When a hostage-taking at a school in southern Russia erupted in explosions last month, viewers who rushed to turn on state-run Channel 1 were treated for the next hour to a film, “Lady with a Parrot.” They wouldn’t have fared much better on Channel 2, which stuck to a travelogue.

Many Russians instead received their news of the events in Beslan, in which more than 330 hostages died, from Echo of Moscow radio, whose anchors were monitoring CNN and BBC television.

“It gave me the creeps to see how the two main television channels of Russia were ignoring the climax of the hostage tragedy in Beslan; we couldn’t take an iota from them,” said Sergei Buntman, the independent radio station’s deputy editor. Russian media apparently didn’t tow the line as thoroughly as they might have.

The Culture and Press Ministry announced last week that it had issued 18 reprimands for unspecified violations of the law on mass media, about a quarter of them connected with coverage of Beslan and other terrorist acts. It said a second violation could result in the revocation of an organization’s license.

President Vladimir V. Putin’s envoy to the upper house of parliament, Alexander Kotenkov, called for adoption of a censorship law.

“We must think of introducing regulatory, not narrow, censorship. We must clearly say what cannot be published in the mass media,” said Kotenkov.

The gradual disappearance of Russia’s independent television has been widely discussed. The remaining independent media also face regular Kremlin pressure. But only since the recent wave of attacks by extremists has it become clear what state control really means.

It is one of many reminders of 70 years of communist rule that the public – and the media themselves -tolerate it.

In October 2002, hundreds of hostages were seized at Moscow’s Dubroka theater by Chechen rebels. A journalist had one of the hostage-takers on the phone live – until the station management cut off the call.

A prominent television news figure, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Russian television operated on clear orders from the Kremlin.

“Obviously, you don’t tell the truth about Chechnya, you don’t tell the truth about the president,” he said. “You don’t tell the truth about (the government’s move to renationalize private) property.”

Alexei Venediktov, Echo of Moscow’s editor-in-chief, said he received “calls every day” from the Kremlin.

“The conversations are endless,” he said. “They want to know: ‘Why do you pay so much attention to Chechnya? There’s nothing happening there . . . . Why are you highlighting this person in such a way? It’s a very controversial issue, and we should treat it tactfully.”

“My answer is always the same,” he smiled. “For ratings, and for profits.”

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