Russia's Press Strikes Back

When a dour Vladimir Putin met with grieving relatives of the Kursk crew last week, he made it clear who was to blame for his poor showing in the crisis. It wasn't the military men and senior officials who had put up a smoke screen of calculated half-truths. The real culprit, Putin said, was Russia's scrappy independent media. Their owners, he charged, "have stolen money and manipulated public opinion."

Putin had reason to be irritated. For months, his government had been cracking down on the independent press, going so far as to briefly imprison Vladimir Gusinsky, owner of the NTV network (and NEWSWEEK's partner in publishing the weekly news magazine Itogi). Initially cowed by the campaign, the independent press was emboldened by the Kursk tragedy. NTV regained its combative voice, feeding viewers a steady stream of stories that contradicted official pronouncements. When the government dismissed offers of foreign assistance, the daily Izvestia ran a photo of the Kursk crew with the headline: the price of national pride--human lives.

Even the provincial media showed how government spin controls can be thwarted. An obscure Murmansk newspaper, Polyarnaya Pravda, managed to break through a cordon the Navy had thrown up around families of the Kursk crewmen. It was the first to interview an officer's wife, Galina Belogun, who said the families were "getting more information from the TV than from the military." The paper put the interview and other tidbits onto its Web site, dramatically increasing their exposure in the national media.

Still, the truth was not always as simple as it looked. The most prominent reporter on the tragedy, Arkady Mamontov from state-owned RTR television, uncritically reported what his military sources told him, even spreading unsubstantiated rumors that a non-Russian vessel may have been involved in the Kursk disaster. One piece of videotape, widely broadcast in the West, showed Nadya Tylik, the mother of a Kursk sailor, railing at government officials during a meeting four days after the sinking. As she protested, a nurse approached from behind and stuck her with a syringe. Tylik shouted a little longer, then collapsed. The episode reminded some viewers of the way the Soviet Union silenced many of its dissidents, drugging them and locking them up in mental institutions. But a few days later, Tylik announced that her husband had requested the injection, fearing that the stress of the meeting would aggravate her heart condition. She said suggestions in the Western press that she had been drugged in order to shut her up were "lots of lies." Misinformation was plentiful during the Kursk crisis, but often there was no sure way to separate truth from falsehood.

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