When Russian troops blundered into Grozny five years ago during their war with the secessionist Chechens, a young commercial television station, NTV, provided unprecedented coverage of the conflict. Night after night, NTV brought the war home with graphic images from both sides.
Today, with Russian troops once again fighting in Chechnya, the images reaching Russian homes are far different. There are almost no pictures of the combat. Russian generals are shown reading official statements, and battlefield information has been strictly censored. Russian tanks fire shells into the sky, but on television little is seen of where they hit.
The change in television coverage, journalists said in interviews, reflects strong public support for the war after recent terrorist bombings of residential buildings in Moscow and elsewhere that killed nearly 300 people and were blamed on Chechen militants. At the same time, Russian journalists who once roamed Chechnya now have almost no access to the breakaway republic because of fears of kidnapping, so they cover only the Russian side of the story.
And, some journalists added, the Russian military has launched a far more aggressive propaganda effort.
The shift in how the news media cover the story goes to the heart of one of the most significant accomplishments in Russia's fragile democracy--the establishment of a free and pluralistic press. Once again, the media are facing challenges to their recently won freedoms.
Before the prior Chechen war, Russians had never seen anything like the combat coverage on NTV. The war in Afghanistan from 1979 to '89 had been covered up by Soviet propaganda. In Chechnya, NTV cameras had access to the rebels' side of the conflict, providing a counterpoint to the official version of events.
"There were grisly images that I am sure are still in people's minds of charred bodies falling out of Russian tanks," said Masha Lipman, deputy editor of the newsweekly, Itogi. "The war had a face, it had vivid images. There were anti-Kremlin, anti-army sentiments both in the press, and, because of it, in society."
"The Kremlin tried to change the attitude, but the performance was so awkward, so inexpert and so bungled that there was barely anything they could do," she added, recalling that an attempt was made to revoke NTV's license.
After the war, as Chechnya fell into an abyss of economic desperation, Russian journalists became victims of widespread kidnappings. One of NTV's top correspondents, Yelena Masyuk, was kidnapped and held 101 days with two members of her crew; they were released only after the payment of a $2 million ransom.
"I know journalists who went to Chechnya often in previous campaigns," said Ludmila Telen, deputy editor of the weekly newspaper Moscow News. "But after all those kidnappings, and especially after Masyuk was kidnapped, few journalists go there, because it's scary. They know they must give fair coverage but it involves too many risks."
"We are more cautious," said Lev Koshlyakov, general director of "Vesti," the nightly news broadcast on state-owned television. So far the program has not sent correspondents into Chechnya because, he said, "We don't have a full picture."
Early in the last war, Oleg Dobrodeyev, general director of NTV, said his channel took the lead in challenging the authorities. "Every day we had to refute the disinformation that was coming down the official channels," he said in 1995. NTV showed "a tent filling up with bodies on the streets of Grozny," he said, contradicting the official statement "saying there were no dead bodies on the streets of Grozny."
But recently, Dobrodeyev told Krasnaya Zvezda, the official Defense Ministry newspaper, that the relationship between the military and the media had changed sharply for the better, with the media given more access to Russian officers. "When you see everything with your own eyes, when in real time the Defense Ministry generals are giving you information, you don't have to ask anyone anything else," he said.
Russian journalists said the military has launched an "information war" this time. Last weekend, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin met with leaders of all major Russian television channels and appealed for their support, Koshlyakov said.
This week, Putin announced the creation of a new "information center" run by Col. Gen. Valery Manilov, senior deputy army chief of staff. Asked about reports that Russian forces had hit a bus carrying civilian refugees, Manilov replied: "This is sheer disinformation." However, witnesses have said the attack took place, and a video of what was said to be the destroyed vehicle and its passengers was provided to Reuters television.
The Russian military also has clamped a tight lid on information about casualties. Recently, two lawmakers accused the military of covering up the number of soldiers killed in Dagestan, a region bordering Chechnya where Russian troops have recently battled Chechen rebels seeking to establish an Islamic state.
Aside from Chechnya, journalists say the Kremlin appears to be attempting to muscle the news media into greater accommodation before parliamentary and presidential elections.
The government has created a new ministry for the press. Its chief, Mikhail Lesin, who has an advertising background and previously worked in the Kremlin, recently complained that "there is much aggression" in the media.
He did not say what he intended to do about it, but the ministry earlier suspended the license of a St. Petersburg television station after a controversial broadcast.
Andrei Richter, who directs the Media Law and Policy Center at Moscow State University, said new laws allow the government to suspend broadcasting licenses for three months without a court hearing.
A group of editors who are part of Media-Most, a holding company run by mogul Vladimir Gusinsky, wrote an open letter to Putin on Friday complaining of intimidation by the tax police.
Mikhail Berger, editor of the newspaper Sevodnya, said the Kremlin was trying to "spoil life" for the media outlets that do not fall in line.
"I am sure that it will be not very easy to fight the Kremlin. They have very strong instruments if they want to fight someone." But, he added, "We are not going to give up."