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    Journalists Become Chechnya's Latest Victims

    NTV via AP
    Journalist Yelena Masyuk was a familiar presence on Russian television before she was kidnapped by masked gunmen in Chechnya 2 1/2 weeks ago.

    By Lee Hockstader
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    Tuesday, May 27, 1997; Page A10

    MOSCOW -- If anyone in Russia understood the risks of reporting on the war in Chechnya -- and on the perilous peace that has followed -- it was Yelena Masyuk.

    In hair-raising broadcasts starting at the war's outset, the 31-year-old Masyuk and her crew from Russia's NTV network made their reputations as among the bravest, brashest and most professional reporters on the scene. Her name became synonymous with hot-spot journalism, like a homegrown version of CNN's celebrated war correspondent, Christiane Amanpour.

    Few journalists had contacts in Chechnya that were as good as Masyuk's. Few were as fearless, and few knew the political ins and outs of the place as well. But that was not enough to protect her; earlier this month, Masyuk and her crew were kidnapped by armed men as they were driving out of Chechnya to transmit a story.

    The abduction of Masyuk, along with cameraman Ilya Mordyukov and sound engineer Dmitri Ulchev, brings to seven the number of journalists seized by kidnappers in the region this year and still held. According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, seven others disappeared in 1995 and 1996 and are feared dead.

    The rash of kidnappings -- and the rumors of extravagant ransom demands that have swirled around them -- underlines the lawlessness that grips the secessionist Chechen region in the wake of a bitter war prosecuted by Moscow and the risks journalists continue to run there in spite of last summer's peace settlement.

    According to her friends and colleagues, Masyuk had no illusions about those risks, despite the celebrity she enjoyed and the prizes she had collected as Russian television's ace reporter on one of its hottest stories. Nor was an enormous pay package her incentive. While Masyuk probably has been well compensated by Russian standards, her salary would amount to a mere fraction of those enjoyed by the stars of Western TV journalism.

    "She felt the risks are part of the job," Anastasia Kitsul, a former journalist and a friend of Masyuk's, said in a telephone interview. "She takes her job very seriously, and to her if something is happening out there she feels it's her personal responsibility to cover it and to make it known."

    Her abduction follows the pattern of others in the Chechen region in recent months. After covering a May 10 rally in Grozny, the Chechen capital, Masyuk and the NTV crew were driving west from the city toward the neighboring Russian region of Ingushetia to transmit their material to Moscow. They were stopped by armed, masked men, hustled out of their vehicle and into another and driven away. Little more is known about the circumstances of their disappearance.

    According to NTV, there has been no word from the kidnappers since then, no ransom demanded and no clue to Masyuk's whereabouts. Chechen officials, many of whom were on good terms with Masyuk and had been interviewed by her, have vowed to press an aggressive investigation. But such promises have come to naught before.

    As in past kidnappings, there have been rumors and speculation -- but no confirmation -- that a large ransom demand has been made in connection with Masyuk's disappearance. "We're afraid to make any reckless comment that could exacerbate the situation and endanger lives," said Tatanya Blinova, a spokeswoman for NTV. "We are dealing with people who are of a different mentality. Chechnya is the East, not the West, and the twain will never meet."

    But in the confusion of Chechnya these days, no one can be sure whether her kidnapping is a purely mercenary act or one tinged with political intrigue. Some have guessed that the abduction, which came on the eve of the signing of a peace accord by Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, was meant to undercut the agreement, or perhaps to destabilize Maskhadov's position.

    Masyuk's reporting, often from areas of considerable violence, helped make NTV's reputation as the most professional of Russia's television news operations from the beginning of the Chechen war in December 1994. She was prominent among a new generation of Russian journalists unafraid to expose government lies about a conflict that ultimately cost the lives of tens of thousands of civilians.

    In the summer of 1995, she became the center of a storm of controversy when she interviewed a Chechen guerrilla commander shortly after he had pulled off a spectacular raid on the Russian city of Budennovsk in which more than 1,000 civilians were taken hostage. Masyuk's interview at the guerrilla chief's hideout a few days after he negotiated his escape from Budennovsk caused a sensation and prompted the Russian attorney general to demand that she reveal the commander's whereabouts.

    If she did not, the attorney general threatened, she would be charged with "failing to inform" the state about a criminal act. She refused, but the matter was soon dropped after the attorney general was forced to resign amid allegations of corruption.

    Masyuk had been in Chechnya earlier this year to cover local elections, but for some months before that her editors had all but forbidden her to cover the war and its aftermath, believing she had run her share of risks in a place that had claimed the lives of a number of journalists.

    Nonetheless, Masyuk continued to report from high-risk areas, including former Soviet Central Asia and Afghanistan. This month, she volunteered again to make a trip to Chechnya despite the spate of abductions and other signs of instability in the region.

    "When the war was going on," Kitsul said, "there were clear-cut lines about who was fighting against whom, so it was safer in a way than after the war, when there were no clear-cut sides and so many factions and groups fighting for power."

    © Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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