Toronto Star - Guerrilla tactics needed in information war

December 28, 1999

Ingenuity and cash help to get first-hand look at Chechnya

By Olivia Ward

CHECHEN-INGUSH BORDER - "Pssst, want to go to Chechnya?" asks the jolly-looking man in the fur hat.

Not far from him, a half-dozen bedraggled journalists are huddling into their collars, staring down the frozen, sparsely populated road that leads to the Chechen war.

The road is closed. Very firmly.

In case anybody has any doubts, the Russian troops have added another layer of "security" to the border checkpoint, placing rows of metal posts along the pitted roadway, and manning the Ingush as well as the Chechen side of the border.

Like heavily armed sheepdogs, they persistently push journalists back from the crossing point, at the same time preventing the few cars and buses that have managed to escape along the "safe corridor" from Chechnya from stopping to let the occupants tell their stories.

Since Moscow's war to eradicate separatist guerrillas began nearly three months ago, it has been waging a dual information war: Tell Russians they are winning without killing their sons, and convince the West it's a nearly bloodless battle that terminates only terrorists.

Western journalists, and a handful of bold souls from Russia, have thrown a spanner in the war machine by publicizing the plight of the refugees driven out by bombing and shelling, and showing distressing images of the casualties among civilians and Russian troops.

That has angered the Moscow spin doctors, who see journalism as a patriotic duty rather than a profession. Not surprisingly, they have done everything possible to prevent the media from looking behind the scenes.

In theory, journalists should be able to enter Chechnya with special accreditation issued by the military authorities in Mozdok, in North Ossetia at the northwestern border of Chechnya.

But the accreditation - issued in a rarefied and unexplained way - has been given to few foreigners, most of whom have only their foreign ministry press cards that authorize them to work in Russia.

Officials say the new measure is necessary to protect the safety of journalists working in the war zone.

But it also has echoes of the last Chechen war, from 1994-96, when Moscow developed two levels of "special" accreditation, a government card, and the infamous "white paper," a flimsy-looking document signed by the military, and obtainable only in the army headquarters at Mozdok.

The white paper seldom materialized, but trying to get it did keep journalists occupied.

Control over journalists in the last war was lackadaisical compared with this one.

Roads into Chechnya are peppered with checkpoints manned by unpredictable troops, who might prove civil, surly or unhinged.

'We're wasting so much time and energy trying to figure out how to cover this war, that we hardly have the strength to get our stories out.'
-Photo journalist-

Some are rumoured to be in a "bizness" mood, according to the man in the fur hat and dozens like him. The energetic salesmen claim to have good connections at the checkpoints and border posts, and tell journalists they're willing to "make arrangements" for a smooth crossing for a price. There are many takers.

The information blockade has frustrated journalists to the point where many will try anything to get a view of what's really happening.

For a while, trips into refugee areas with the local ministry for humanitarian aid were popular, until the Russians began to check all ministry vehicles in detail, catching a crew of BBC reporters. They managed to "escape."

Undaunted, the crew hired a minibus, packed it with refugees, and entered Chechnya in disguise. But that option was clamped off when the BBC, unable to resist a good anecdote, broadcast the story of their exploits.

More intrepid hacks have tried hiking into Chechnya from the snow-covered mountains of Georgia, until that border too was bombed and sealed.

But ingenuity is limitless.

Skulking in the hotel hallways in Nazran, journalists whisper their latest schemes, only to turn up again shaking their heads. The men in fur hats may fail to deliver, and occasionally "forget" about the refund for the cancelled adventure.

Meanwhile, watchers and lurkers keep an eye on the press' every move around the tiny borderland.

Locals warn that the hotel rooms are bugged. And officials of undetermined origin do room-to-room checks for registration and ID.

"We're wasting so much time and energy trying to figure out how to cover this war, that we hardly have the strength to get our stories out," said an American photojournalist.

Ironically, the foreign media are far less sympathetic to the Chechen rebels than during the last war.

But the brutality of the campaign has given the media a focus, and, after the war in Kosovo, a determination to expose the victimization of civilians.

As in Kosovo, the news is controlled, but impossible to suppress.

Day by grinding day, the news gatherers throw themselves at their task.

The border is beckoning. And there's a man with a fur hat who says he's heard about a certain helicopter that might be available for a price.

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