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Russian Politicians, Journalists Question How Terrorism Covered in Media

One year after the terrorist attack on a school in Beslan, leading Russian politicians and journalists are questioning how terrorism is covered in the media.

An interview with Russia's most wanted terrorist suspect, Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev was broadcast in the United States on ABC television's Nightline program less than one month before public memorials to Beslan's more than 300 victims.

In the interview, Basayev acknowledged through a translator that he was "a bad guy, a bandit, a terrorist. But so too," he said, are the Russians."

He also dismissed Russia's official version that the decades-old conflict in separatist Chechnya is a struggle against international terrorism. "We have got a colonial war going on now," he said. Asked if attacks like the one in Beslan could be repeated, he replied, "Of course they can, we are thinking of new ways all the time."

The interview is thought to be Basayev's first direct meeting with a journalist in years, and was carried out by a reporter who works for the U.S. government-funded RFE/RL, Andrei Babitsky.

Outrage, was the word used by the Russian Embassy in Washington in response to the interview's airing. The reaction was much the same in Moscow, where the deputy head of Russia's foreign ministry, Boris Malakhov, swiftly severed all contacts with ABC television, declaring its staff persona non-grata.

In comments broadcast on Russian television, Mr. Malakhov says the airing of the Basayev interview contradicts current efforts, including those of Russia and the United States, in resisting global terrorism.

But the head of Russia's independent Glasnost Defense Fund, Alexei Simonov, says it is Russian government officials who are in the wrong.

"It was an informational act, and if politics goes into information, it makes informational acts political," he said.

Mr. Simonov also takes issue with the government's claims that reporter Babitsky violated Russian law by interviewing Basayev, calling that view idiotic.

The head of Russia's Union of Journalists, Vsevolod Bogdanov, says he is concerned with recent trends to pressure journalists like Babitsky. He says it deflects attention from what should be the real issue, in his view, the dangers posed by global terrorism.

Mr. Bogdanov says journalists should not be made to be the scapegoats. "Everybody shares responsibility for fighting global terrorism," he said.

Mr. Bogdanov also says that in many ways the reporters work may have even been helpful. He says it cut short idle gossip about whether Basayev is alive or dead and shed light, however chilling, on how he thinks. Alexei Simonov of the Glasnost Defense Fund agrees.

Mr. Simonov says even information from the most awful terrorist is useful if it sheds light on radical methods or ideology. And he advises all journalists to remember, as he put it, that not all things governments call terrorism, really qualify as such.

But with the lines so clearly blurred these days, many journalists in Russia are looking for clarification. Vsevolod Bogdanov of the Union of Russian journalists says it is important to pinpoint terrorism coverage standards exactly so no network, or reporter, ever has to fear being accused of supporting terrorism in trying to tell the news.

Mr. Bogdanov says firm rules and regulations are needed. But most of all, he says whatever the rules, they must unite journalists, politicians and ordinary citizens on the side of good over evil.

Moscow-based political analyst Masha Lipman of the Carnegie Center is skeptical. She says it is not only unnecessary, but downright unwise, to seek change for media standards on terrorism.

"I think there are standards, and there have been standards, and media have worked according to these standards, and when journalists themselves ask for superior authority, quote-unquote, to tell them how to act this is bad for the media," she said.

But Ms. Lipman says she and the other analysts do agree on one thing, that it is time for the Russian government to stop viewing the media as the enemy.