-- Russian lawmakers, responding to last week's theater hostage crisis, voted today to impose broad new limitations on media coverage of terrorist actions, bolstering the Kremlin's power to control information in a country in which press freedom is already considered fragile.
The State Duma, the lower house of parliament, voted 231 to 106 to ban the broadcast or publication of statements the government considers a hindrance to counter-terrorist operations, a sweeping definition that could theoretically include anti-war protests or pleas by relatives not to storm a building where hostages are held.
The legislation, which now heads to the upper chamber, the Federation Council, for expected approval before being sent to President Vladimir Putin, would tighten the restrictions already faced by broadcast and print outlets during the seizure of a Moscow theater that left at least 119 hostages dead.
During the crisis, the government took one television station off the air, prevented another from airing the full tape of its interview with the leader of the Chechen guerrillas holding the theater, forced a radio station to remove an offending interview from its Web site and reprimanded a newspaper for printing a particular picture. Under the pressure of such tactics, the tone of coverage shifted dramatically, especially on state-controlled television, which began emphasizing the success of the government's operation and playing down the complaints of relatives kept waiting in the freezing cold for days with no word of their loved ones.
The move by parliament to crack down further came as a prominent Chechen warlord claimed responsibility for the seizure of the Moscow theater. In a statement on a rebel Web site, Shamil Basayev, the best-known military commander fighting Russian troops in the breakaway republic of Chechnya, said he helped organize the siege and tried to exonerate Aslan Maskhadov, the elected Chechen president and leader of the separatist movement's political wing.
Basayev said he was asking Maskhadov to "accept my resignation from all posts I occupy and forgive me and my comrades-in-arms for not disclosing the preparation" of the assault on the Moscow theater. At least 50 heavily armed guerrillas demanding an end to the war in Chechnya held 800 hostages until Russian commandos stormed the building.
Basayev's statement appeared to be intended to help Maskhadov, once considered a moderate who might be able to negotiate a settlement with Russia, remain a credible force internationally. But it might be too late. A U.S. diplomat earlier this week dismissed Maskhadov as "damaged goods" and a Russian official ruled him out as a potential negotiating partner.
The Kremlin on Thursday produced intercepted telephone conversations between the guerrillas in the theater and accomplices elsewhere that they said proved Maskhadov's involvement in the plot. Through a representative, Maskhadov has denied responsibility.
Today's Duma action on media curbs revived a debate on the limits of freedom in Russia barely a decade after the fall of communism. Under Putin, state-controlled entities have taken over the country's only major independent television network, forced out the management of a smaller TV station, closed down a critical newspaper, ousted the staff of a newsmagazine and threatened the future of Russia's most prestigious radio station.
After the Chechen guerrillas took over the Moscow theater last week, Russian officials bristled at some of the coverage and began claiming such reports were helping the hostage-takers. The Chechens insisted their statements be broadcast over NTV television but the government ordered the network not to air them.
Since then, some media outlets have backed off aggressive coverage. At a news conference held by senior Russian officials Thursday, no Russian reporter raised a question about the government's decision to use a powerful gas to subdue the Chechen guerrillas that ended up killing 117 of the hostages.
The legislation passed today "gives the state the chance to protect itself from the propaganda war," Pavel Kovalenko, a lawmaker from the pro-Putin Unity party, told reporters.
But others complained it was part of a broader move to tighten control over information. "All this put together, this chain of controlled democracy and vertical power, is actually limiting human rights," said Sergei Ivanenko, a leader of the reformist Yabloko party.
The Duma also voted almost unanimously to prevent the return of the guerrillas' bodies to their families. According to lawmakers, they should be buried in unmarked graves.
And the legislators rebuffed an effort by the reformist Union of Right Forces to force parliament to form a commission to investigate the government's handling of the theater siege. The Duma recessed without considering the proposal, explaining there was no time.