IN THE CHAOS and high emotion that invariably surround terrorist attacks on civilians, the provision of reliable official information is critical to the prevention of mass panic. During the horrific terrorist occupation of a school in Beslan, southern Russia, this month, no such information was available. The Russian government lied about how many people were in the building, about the identities of the attackers and about the nature of negotiations with them. The authorities also instituted a virtual news blackout: There was no reporting of early, independent attempts at negotiation. Indeed there was almost no reporting at all -- and the blackout may have contributed to the disastrous outcome. It now appears that uninformed vigilantes armed with rifles started the shooting that led to the storming of the building. That led to the deaths of hundreds of children as well as Russian troops, some of whom were killed, accidentally, by the vigilantes themselves.
The controls on the news were even heavier than anyone knew at the time. The eminent war correspondent Anna Politkovskaya says she was given a drug that knocked her out on the plane to southern Russia, after she used her cell phone to try and get in touch with Chechen separatist leaders whom she hoped would negotiate with the terrorists. Radio Liberty reporter Andrei Babitsky, also known for his refusal to toe the authorities' line, was arrested in Moscow and prevented from traveling to Beslan altogether. The generally pro-establishment editor of the newspaper Izvestia, after bravely producing some accurate coverage of the situation, was fired for doing so. Government control of the media is no longer a matter of television stations run by Kremlin proxies, and subtle pressure. These are brutal, Soviet-era tactics, and it is stunning that so few outside Russia have denounced them.
Their use bodes ill for Russians but carries even worse harbingers for the people who live in the northern Caucasus, near Beslan. Because of the delicate, Balkan-like relations among ethnic groups in the region -- and the consequent potential for revenge attacks and further violence -- reliable official information is going to matter even more in the coming weeks. Rumors will need to be countered, passions may have to be calmed. But if no one trusts the government, and no one believes the media, who can do so?