Russia: security agent talks press freedom
An international conference on press freedom in Vienna, reports Andrei Soldatov, included a surprising guest: a Russian security service agent.
12 Oct 09

An international conference on press freedom in Vienna, reports Andrei Soldatov, included a suprising guest: a Russian security service agent.

For the first time in almost a decade. the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) has decided to take part in a discussion on media coverage of the war on terror. In early October it sent one of its officials to the “War on Words” conference on this subject held by the International Press Institute in Vienna.

The presence of the Russian security services at an international discussion about press coverage of counterterrorism was surprising. After all, this is precisely the area of press freedom that is most systematically suppressed in Russia. And the originator and the main beneficiary of this strategy is the FSB.

The process has actually started in 1999 with the Second Chechen war: the Kremlin appeared to have learned the lessons of the conflict in 1994-1996, when Russian and foreign journalists managed to slip through Russian lines and were well provided with information from the other side in Chechnya. In Moscow the defeat was explained by Russia’s unpreparedness to fight and win the “information war,” which in turn prevented the mobilization of national will and soured international support. As a result, during the Second Chechen war the Kremlin did its best to prevent journalists from getting information provided by rebels.

Following this strategy, Moscow called the new conflict was a counterterrorism operation instead of a war. And under Russian law the press is not allowed to publish the comments of terrorists. Some Russian newspapers, notably Kommersant and Novaya Gazeta had been warned by the authorities for publishing interviews with rebels Moscow dubbed dubbed as terrorists. Some journalists were detained because of their reports of the storming of the Chechen capital Grozny from inside the city.

Large-scale terrorist attacks, notably Nord-Ost in October 2002 and Beslan in September 2004, became a pretext for the authorities to secure this approach. In 2002 a number of media outlets were punished for giving an air to hostage-takers in Nord-Ost as well as for the criticism towards the special operation to release hostages. The office of the Versyia weekly (where I then) was raided by FSB officers and I was interrogated four times at the FSB’s Lefortovo prison because of the reporting. But then the strategy was expanded: journalists were deprived of the right to go to areas of counterterrorism operation. If a new Beslan happens, journalists will most likely not be let in.

The authorities has intensified this approach. In 2006 a new anti-terrorist law was adopted, prohibiting journalists from getting to areas declared as zones of counterterrorist operations (a practice very similar to the Israeli “closed military area”). The authorities also established the “Bastion” training courses, a sort of brainwashing for journalists. If you have not attended the courses you might be not allowed to get to the area, as the number of press accreditations is limited and the preference would be for those participating in Bastion. That were the points I tried to explain at the conference in Vienna.

To my surprise, Nikolai Sintsov, the spokesman of the National Anti-Terrorism Committee (the coordination body within the FSB) did not try to deny it. In his statement at the panel moderated by Nick Gowing from BBC World News, Sintsov confirmed the limitations implied by the 2006 law. “Since by definition it is on the side of the majority, which is society, mass media should unconditionally support the anti-terrorist front,” he said.

Sintsov also admitted that the Bastion courses are a crucial part of FSB’s information strategy. He said that journalists at the courses “get knowledge concerning professional conduct and responsibility”. This stone-faced FSB official, so assured about the Russian secret services’ right to establish journalistic ethics, lost his temper only once in the conference: When asked whether he considered Anna Politkovskaya as a responsible journalist, he paused and asked in turn, what kind of responsibility was meant.

Andrei Soldatov is editor of Agentura.Ru website. He worked for Novaya Gazeta from January 2006-November 2008. Soldatov and Irina Borogan are working on a book, The New Nobility, about the Russian secret services for PublicAffairs Books to be published in 2010