Russia’s war with Chechnya may have been officially pronounced over last week, but the implications of the conflict in the charged political world of Russian broadcasting have still to be absorbed.
And the lessons which the country’s liberal broadcasting forces are having to learn are not all heartening ones.
Basically, Chechnya was the first major domestic conflict in Russia where TV played a significant role in shaping public opinion, sometimes in direct contradiction to the official government line. In October 1993, broadcasters stayed obviously on the side of Russian President Boris Yeltsin in his conflict with Parliament.
The most obvious difference between the two conflicts is symbolized by the appearance on the scene of NTV, the leader in independent coverage, which specializes in news. NTV’s first program aired (by coincidence) a week after the storming of the main government building in Moscow in October 1993.
In Chechnya, NTV played the major role, bringing often violent and distressing images of the conflict to viewers. The reportage from hospitals and from the bunkers of Grozny contradicted claims that the city had been quickly captured by the invading Russian troops.
The fear at the back of everyone’s minds was the return of covert censorship, especially after President Yeltsin’s statement Dec. 27 that “Chechen money pays for the functioning of some Russian mass media.” This brought a public riposte from many figures of the Russian press and TV world, who demanded concrete proof of an accusation considered wild even by Yeltsin’s usual flexible standards.
More startling was the incident with Russian TV (Channel 2) chief, Oleg Poptsov. Unlike state-controlled Ostankino (Channel 1), which has proved little more than an official mouthpiece, Channel 2 has achieved an unexpected degree of objectivity in its reporting.
Much-rumored dissatisfaction from the Kremlin manifested itself with a report from Human Rights Commissioner Sergei Kovalyov that Yeltsin had told him face to face that Poptsov was to be dismissed.
To date, Poptsov, 60, who has been with Channel 2 since he started it in 1991, and was a supporter of Yeltsin in August 1991 and October 1993, still is in office, and his staff has come out firmly in support of him. But the way in which rumors were floated illustrates how leverage is exerted in the political world.
“State television does not belong to the authorities but to society, to the public,” Poptsov said in a Jan. 10 news conference, where he revealed that Yeltsin and other top Kremlin officials had requested him to change Channel 2’s broadcasting in their favor. In the course of one evening broadcast, Poptsov revealed, he would sometimes receive six phone calls from the Kremlin challenging facts in the program.