$1,000 buys ticket to the war zone

Date: January 27, 2000
Source: The Times
By Giles Whittell


RUSSIA'S security forces are accepting bribes of up to $1,000 (about 615) a day to take journalists to frontline positions in the battle for Grozny, a government official acknowledged yesterday after a press conference in which Moscow had hoped to seize the initiative in the Chechnya information war.

Sergei Yastrzhembsky, appointed by acting President Putin to co-ordinate information from the war zone, was confronted by a French photographer, who described three recent trips to the region's war-torn capital, all arranged by officers of the Federal Security Service (FSB) in return for substantial cash payments.

"I returned from Grozny three days ago," Antoine Gyori, of the Sygma photo agency, said. "My journalist's accreditation was useless, but my hundred-dollar bills worked like a dream."

Waving one in Mr Yastrzhembsky's face, Mr Gyori added: "The Chechens have never asked me for money, but the FSB always does. It is shameful."

Mr Yastrzhembsky replied: "Yes, it is shameful. I agree with everything you say. Come with me next time you go to Chechnya and you won't pay a rouble."

The exchange encapsulated the difficulty in which Russian officials find themselves as they try to control information in an increasingly costly war, while disenchanted soldiers on the ground latch on to journalists as a source of cash or as a channel through which to vent fears and frustrations.

When not greased with hard currency, the Russian information blockade around Chechnya can be unyielding. Reporters from The Times have been detained twice by the FSB (the KGB's successor) trying to find a way through it, and most recently have used disguise to enter the country with a Chechen guide.

Mr Yastrzhembsky said he did not think Moscow had given foreign reporters enough opportunity to see "what we are doing in Chechnya". He promised to reorganise by next week a tortuous system of accreditation that has served so far to keep all but the most co-operative Russian reporters off most military trips into the war zone.From now on, the only official Russian sources on the war will be Mr Yastrzhembsky and General Valeri Manilov of the Armed Forces' general staff, he said.

All journalists in the region would be required to have life insurance and their freedom of movement would be limited "for their own security" because of the risk of kidnapping.

It was no surprise when the new team in charge of war news rejected claims that official casualty figures are far lower than the real ones. The official Russian death toll since fighting began in Dagestan in August stood at 820 yesterday, but anonymous army sources put it at 1,173.


© 2007 Chechen Republic Online