TV brings war home to Russians as well

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The Independent Online
Western television cameras and a single satellite dish arrived in Chechnya well before Russian troops and tanks. The images they broadcast probably saved Grozny from a swift, determined and sustained assault by Russian forces. Unlike a growing num ber ofthe big Western military powers, neither the Russian government nor its most senior military commanders seem to have even a basic understanding of the fundamental change now under way in new reporting, especially in television news.

They seem to have expected the luxury of some kind of covert operation such as Afghanistan. Instead, the arrival of Russian troops and airpower was almost as public as American forces landing in Haiti. Worse still, the coverage included humiliating failures like the downing of a Russian helicopter.

By the time Moscow realised this, vivid footage had been swirling around uncensored on Russia's many new television stations and international networks for several days. But unprecedented open coverage of the first Russian "black tulip" coffins being returned home seems suddenly to have rekindled old Soviet instincts of news management.

Moscow's efforts to exert control, though, were belated and ill-considered. Journalists and television teams were officially warned to leave Grozny because their "safety can no longer be guaranteed". Familiar darker threats from the past were also deployed. Several Western ambassadors had to remind the Russian foreign ministry of their international obligations. Despite Russia being a signatory to the press freedoms guaranteed by the Helsinki Acts, the prospects for future journalists' accre d itations in Moscow became an issue.

The plug was pulled selectively on some television coverage being transmitted from television stations in republics bordering Chechnya. In Grozny, the rooms of some journalists were ransacked and tapes were seized. In Moscow, there were sudden new difficulties about importing extra television equipment.

More ominously, Russian journalists in Grozny believed several television teams shot at during the Russian advance had been targeted by either Russian spetsnaz special forces or undercover officers from the FSK, the successor to the KGB.

Despite protests in Moscow, only the threat of Russian bombing of Grozny on Saturday finally gave media organisations pause for thought. It led to almost every news team being pulled out because of the apparent imminent danger. And with them - on Russianorders - went the one satellite dish.

On Sunday, some took the risk of returning. The satellite dish did not. As a result, my ITN colleague, Julian Manyon, who had remained in Grozny, faced a hazardous road journey with his video tapes out of Chechnya to Dagestan to edit and transmit his Sunday coverage. Now the only way to maintain live coverage may be the satellite telephone used by both broadcast and print reporters to file.

As President Yeltsin and the shadowy advisers who reportedly persuaded him to act contemplate their next moves in both Chechnya and other troublesome republics, they must face a new reality. Despite what they might hope, governments and the military havevirtually no power to control live television coverage from a conflict. The much-resented controls imposed during the Gulf war and the Falklands are from a past era of television news coverage that is unlikely to be revisited.

The European Broadcasting Union, on behalf of its multinational members, including ITN and the BBC, dispatched a satellite dish to Grozny two weeks ago. As with Sarajevo, Goma or Haiti, from that moment Chechnya was no longer a backwater of interest onlyto a few. Suddenly, the plight of a tiny republic and a virtually self-declared dictator facing the military ire of the Russian Bear became a centre of world attention. The EBU dish had taken advantage of a window of opportunity before Chechnya's borders were sealed. But attempts by other companies to ship in more dishes left the equipment stranded outside Chechnya.

Through naivety, complacency or ignorance, Moscow's political and military players from Yeltsin and defence minister General Grachev downwards must have believed that the operation in Chechnya would be Afghanistan Mark Two. The very public and televised military action against the Russian White House 14 months ago would not be so palatable in Chechnya. Whether using special forces to storm the presidential palace, as happened in Kabul in 1979, warplanes to bomb Grozny, or motorised divisions to suppressany civil resistance, the Kremlin must have assumed it could achieve its objectives virtually unwitnessed by the outside world until, that is, it was too late for outsiders to reconsider their tacit approval for intervention.

In Washington, London or Paris, handling and attempting to restrict media access is a key element in the planning of any military operation. But the kind of press and information strategy inherent in any Western military operation remains anathema to theRussians, notwithstanding the scores of bilateral exchanges with the Western military.

Despite the long political build-up in Moscow to signal an eventual operation to crush the Chechen problem once and for all, it was at least a week before Russian officials considered trying to suppress international television coverage from Grozny. By this time, it was too late and smacked of repression of legitimate journalistic activity.

In Afghanistan, the Soviet forces had achieved their objectives before the first Western correspondents smuggled themselves in. Those television crews who made it belatedly to Kabul in those first days were threatened (sometimes with death), then expell e d in often unpleasant circumstances. Very little video emerged (it was film in those days), which meant almost nothing of the Soviet scorched-earth policy emerged for months. So far, the Chechnya debacle seems to show the rigid assumption that Kremlin om nipotence will prevail.

In the West, military commanders are increasingly aware that, given the state of television coverage, unless an offensive miliary operation can achieve its objective with overwhelming force in no more than three to four days, then there may be good reason not to launch it. It is a calculation Moscow appears not to have considered.

The author is diplomatic editor of ITN's Channel 4 News.

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