Demonization of Chechens by Russian media and its impact on the opinion of international society

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Russo-Chechen relations have started long time ago and they always had some troubles. In nineteenth-century, Russian poets and novelists presented Chechnya in a romanticized way, portraying Chechen people both as lone and noble fighters, and as ‘savages’. So what has happened to an image of Chechens? Nowadays the only association which comes to people’s mind with Chechen is- “terrorist”. The aim of my dissertation is to analyze how and why Russian media did have played its role in changing people’s opinions toward Chechnya and Chechens and what stands behind it.

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Demonization of Chechens by Russian media and its impact on the opinion of international society 


Russo-Chechen relations have started long time ago and they always had some troubles. In nineteenth-century, Russian poets and novelists presented Chechnya in a romanticized way, portraying Chechen people both as lone and noble fighters, and as ‘savages’. So what has happened to an image of Chechens? Nowadays the only association which comes to people’s mind with Chechen is- “terrorist”. The aim of my dissertation is to analyze how and why Russian media did have played its role in changing people’s opinions toward Chechnya and Chechens and what stands behind it.

Media turns out to be a great mobilizing and fighting force in modern conflicts. This is the same combat resource as tanks and artillery, as with television and press such goals as recruitment and morale of soldiers and the public, including international support for the conflicting parties, can be achieved. In today’s world, in the era of global information technology, media have become a powerful weapon in the management of armed conflicts. As to Tishkov: “Nowadays it is virtually impossible to organize a conflict without media, and it has long been one of the front lines of conflict”. (Tishkov V., 1994) Media have the power to inflate or reduce the flames of conflicts in their reports. This section will provide some theoretical background, such as ethical stereotyping in media. V. Tishkov’s article are used to describe how does stereotyping in media work and A. Minkin’s opinion that Russian government needed to create an enemy in media, in order to hide economic and social problems will be analyzed.

The Chechen crisis has exposed the problems of media coverage related to ethno-political conflict, especially in the phase of fighting. Modern domestic journalism, as well as Russian society as a whole, have been brought up under a totalitarian regime, the communist ideology, and were not ready to play a role, which media suppose to play in a democratic society. The level of freedom of press can be measured during any crisis. In this regard, the war in Chechnya has put some serious questions about the ability of authorities to comply with the principles of openness of information and willingness of the media to act objectively under extreme conditions. The question is not if the information which is transmitted positive or negative, but in fact, that the main evaluation criterion of the media in a democratic society is a test for accuracy and completeness of the information provided. In this section, the relationship between media sources and Russian government will be presented through the analysis of first Chechen war. The behavior of Russian media representatives will be analyzed from different perspectives, such as Ovsepyan’ and Grabelnikov’s. 

During the Chechen conflict it has become clear that free and independent media that reflect and protect the interests of civil society in Russia has not yet been formed. First of all this is due to an oligarchic system of power operating in Russia, a strong bias of the Russian mass media by the various political forces. This is also reinforced by the fact that Russian society at the present time was in the transition state from socialism to wild capitalism, so there were practically no clear moral and ethical guidelines related to the civilized norms of interethnic communication. Another important factor is an absence of real legal norms and mechanisms of ethnicity and journalism, which also promotes political engagement of the media. Here it will be discussed how media in Russia is still under control of a government, in a case of second Chechen campaign. O. Panfilov’s book on informational blockade of Chechnya will help to understand what factors helped Russian government to change the way Chechen conflict was broadcasted.

Media diplomacy will lead to the question of how did covering of Chechen conflict affected the opinion of international society and what role did media play in demonizing the Chechen population. Finally, the image of Chechen nowadays will be presented and compared to the one which was promoted in the first Chechen war.  

Ethical stereotypes of media in Chechen conflict

A special role in covering conflicts is played by generated by journalists and reporters images and stereotypes of the conflicting parties.

Ethnic stereotypes-is a relatively stable view of moral, intellectual and physical qualities, inherent in members of different ethnic communities. The contents of ethical stereotypes include fixed value judgments about these qualities. Ethnic stereotypes can be divided into autostereotypes and heterostereoypes. Autostereotypes are opinions, judgments, assessments, belonging to this ethnic community by its representatives. Usually, autostereotypes include positive ratings. Heterostereotypes, i.e. the set of value judgments about other people, can be either positive or negative, depending on the historical experience of the interaction of these people. (Rösch O., 1998) The content of ethnic stereotypes should distinguish between the relatively stable core, which is a set of ideas about the appearance of representatives of the ethnic group through their historical past, features of life and job skills, and a number of volatile judgments about communicative and moral qualities of people. “The adequacy of the contents of ethnic stereotypes is actually quite problematic. Rather, we should assume that ethnic stereotypes reflect the past and present, positive or negative experience of relations between nations, especially in those areas (such as trade, agriculture, etc.) where these people were most actively contacted”. (Arutyunyan, Drobizheva and Susokolov, 1999:126)

The Chechen conflict has shown how huge is a role of media in creation and printing of stereotypes. The war in Chechnya was going not only on battlefields, but also in the fields of newspapers’ and magazines’ pages, radio and television. Informative warfare (which was admittedly won by Dudayev and Udugov during the first Chechen campaign) was largely a “war of stereotypes”. 

In order to counter the tendentious coverage of issues in resolving the Chechen conflict by Russian and foreign media and strengthen the democratic foundations of the Russian Federation, Russian news agencies were supposed to show that the Russian statehood have an incorrigible enemy in the face of disloyal Chechens.

Media has formed a negative image of Chechen people, by creating an image of a criminal nation, making Russian people dislike them as the main force, which is destroying Russian statehood. The media actively promoted and shaped the frightening image of a “person of Chechen nationality”. Russian man had a chance to see pictures of the “Chechen life” every day on TV screen”- a religious fanatic, a psycho-thriller, flaunting with his “exploits”, leaders of terrorists, threatening to incinerate Russia. Barsukov, a former director of the FSB has made a statement during an operation to release hostages in Kizlyar, captured by S. Raduyev and his fighters. He said: “Chechen terrorism is now beyond the territory of Chechnya. It is almost impossible to find a person who would say something good about Chechens in Russian cities and villages. All Chechen can do is to be a bandit.” (Informational war in Chechnya, 1997:555)  

“Chechen trail” has become the basic version of the Russian secret services to investigate the circumstances of not only explosions and terrorist attacks, but also the assassinations, which have become an everyday phenomenon in Russian reality. Some people from Russian government said, that a residential block of flats, blown up by terrorists in August of 1999 on the Kashir highway, was “Chechen terrorism”. Although there was no single Chechen in the lists of suspects and wanted later, in the minds of Russians Chechens were to blame for the bombings in Moscow and Volgodonsk. “So, Chechen war came to Moscow not in tragic scenes of explosions, but as a reincarnation of anti-Chechen phobias in the phase of “the Chechen war is everywhere”. Instead of realizing that the situation in Chechnya is the all-Russian problem and it can only be solved by joint efforts (cannot be solved only by the Chechens, but also needs their participation in it), Russian society adopts an image of Chechens as a threat associated with internal conflict, which grew into a destructive war”. (Tishkov V., 2001:50)

Media reports from Chechnya are dominated by image of men with guns. Grinning and wild image of a “Highlander” (i.e. Chechen) has been imposed to Russian and international community. According to Alexander Minkin, “It is clear that the government needed another enemy (enemy is a necessary component of Russian life today, and this role is assigned to the Chechens). Without this, it would be difficult to explain why 60% of Russians live below the poverty line, because the discontent of people is a real force. So it is better to direct this force against Chechens, rather than regional and city committees and Kremlin, where governors disadvantage wages and raise the rent”. (Minkin A., 1995:275)

Another stereotype of the war in Chechnya was so-called Russian-Chechen confrontation that lasts for “more than two hundred years”. Some journalists and politicians, use media to deliberately impose Russian man the idea that Chechens are a warlike people, accustomed to live in a combat environment, who are being prepared for war from infancy, too freedom-loving to coexist peacefully with Russia. It gives a thought, that they are historically the “destroyers of the empire”. Thus Chechen people are being pushed beyond the “civilized” nations.

The collapse of the USSR and the armed conflicts erupted in the post-Soviet space have shown that Russian media were ill-prepared for objective coverage of the conflict. “Russian (post-Soviet) journalism carries a ‘generic spot’  of the Bolshevik press: it is dominated not by reporting, but by evaluation-edification. Every report of Russian media is “editorial” and every journalist is a “judge”. (Tishkov V., 1994)

Another reason for the poor coverage of the conflict is the issue of training of journalists and editors. The journalists often do not know any history, or the cause of the conflict, sometimes they do not know anything about the mentality and culture of inhabitants of the region involved in conflict and only judge from prevailing stereotypes about ethnic groups.  

First Chechen war: Media vs. government

Even in relation to the events of 1993, it cannot be said that the authorities had an unconditional support of the “democratic” media. Despite the existence of subsidies, the relationship between the government and the press at the dawn of the second republic were more of a partnership.

This partnership was primarily due to the fact that the leadership of the “democratic” publications supported the policy of democratic market reforms, as well as taking anti-communist positions. Press owed its very existence (popularity, influence and the privatization of media of course) to the new political regime.

In the early 90s press perceived itself as the “fourth estate”, as an independent public institution. Editors and journalists felt their responsibility to society and believed that the press can and should criticize government when it makes mistakes. (Zasursky I., 1999)

Alliance between the press and the government was destroyed after Boris Yeltsin has started the war in Chechnya. From the perspective of Russian press and the “democratic”  press, which had previously supported the president, commercial media and especially the opposition press (except for national patriotic publications like the newspaper “Zavtra” (“Tomorrow”), the war in Chechnya was quite a dull and pointless idea.

No matter how mythological was the system of values of the “democratic” press, in the case of Chechnya it cannot be accused of being unprincipled. Ideals of the second republic, the journalists assumed, were not compatible with the war, especially civil, because the main task of democracy is to overcome the war through open political processes. Chechen war, as well as Afghan war at the time, has started behind the scenes-the reasons were not explained and necessity was not proved. The public and the press could only guess what has become a real reason for a war to take place. When Russian press and TV realized that their position has not led to any change in the policy of authorities it faced a serious dilemma. Either it had to accept the supreme authority of the president, bordering on the dictatorship, thus recognizing that this dictatorship was established with the help of the “democratic” press and TV. Another way was to show this “democratic” press still can really influence government policy and the dictatorship has turned to be enlightened.

As a result “Izvestiya”, “Komsomolskaya Pravda”, “Argumenty I Fakty”, “Moskovsky Komsomolets” and Russian state television RTR and NTV replaced their loyalty to the president for his sharp opposition. Loyalty was retained only by the first channel “Ostankino” and “Russkaia Gazeta”.

The literature on the history of media in Russia has two dramatically opposite views on the development of the conflict in Chechnya and its coverage in the media. Events in Chechnya were perceived in society ambiguously. Official sources kept silent about the heavy losses of Russian army and internal forces in fights with Chechen armed groups. Mass media started to use its right of publicity; they first started talking about what was hidden from people. Reports on television and radio, in numerous newspaper articles were telling the truth about the heavy fighting and how young and poorly trained soldiers were killed. From the first days of war in Chechnya, Russian citizens used media to protest the bloodshed. In 1996, this protest has been significantly increased. All the media reported about a truly mass action held by the Governor Nemtsov of Nizhny Novgorod region- he presented million signatures, demanding to stop the war in Chechnya. The press had every reason to claim that the war in Russia today is more than unpopular, that country does not need bloodshed, which meant that it was time to end the war. (Ovsepyan R., 1996:100-101).

Another look at the history of developments in Chechnya was presented by Grabelnikov in his book. In the section called “A Destabilizing nature of modern media” he defines this historic episode as a “rare event in the history of journalism, when the national enemy sided with the enemy during the war”. (Grabelnikov A., 1996:67-69)

The Chechen crisis showed that the “fourth power” may be executive, as well as legislative and judicial. Rather than reflecting public opinion, some media started to create it.  

The Chechen conflict made significant changes in the opposition between different media representatives. “Democratic” publications massively “attacked” governmental newspaper “Rossiyskaya Gazeta”. This happened because unlike other newspapers, including patriotic and communist, it has supported actions of president and federal forces to defeat Dudayev’s fighters. “Moskovsky Komsomolets” stated that the whole nation condemned the situation in Chechnya and only “Rossiyskaya Gazeta” opposed the entire nation. (Grabelnikov A., 1996:56).  

According to Grabelnikov, massive processing of public opinion by the media has become so obvious and intolerable to the army, that soldiers appealed to the President, the Prime Minister, Chairman of the Duma, Defence Minister with a statement, in which they outlined their difficult situation. They were confronting gangs of professional killers, at the same time dealing with media, which was opposing the strengthening of Russian statehood. Under the support of unscrupulous politicians, pulling out particular words from the speeches of army command and falsification the facts and events, some representatives of Russian media misinformed the public, deliberately aggravating the political situation in the country and undermining Russia’s prestige on the international arena. (Grabelnikov A., 1996:72-73).

With the same zeal with which the press earlier defended the reform policy, it discredited an image of president as a national leader and reported in details about the incompetent military campaign in Chechnya and numerous victims among the soldiers. However, the position of the media community was not unified, as some reporters expressed less unambiguous and anti-war point of view.  


Informational blockade of Chechnya (2 Chechen War)

The situation with covering of the situation in Chechnya has changed dramatically after the Russian forces began second military operation on the territory of the republic. Analytical articles about Chechen war have almost disappeared from the state media. After the adoption of Law “On Combating Terrorism”  called counterterrorist, only NTV television, “Ekho Moskvy” radio station and few Moscow newspapers have tried to report about might happen outbreak of war and how another military action of Russian authorities will turn out.

With the outbreak of war, the content of regional newspapers has changed completely. Only some of them published editorials and articles of analytical observers, which contained more question, but there were almost no answers.

Second Chechen war was preceded by preparation of a new information policy. Military analysts and experts began to circulate through media views, which were supposed to justify the restrictions imposed for journalists by Kremlin. On the 7th of October of 1999, “Kommersant” newspaper has published an article called “The new information policy of the General Staff is immediately out of date”, in which the relationship between military leadership in Chechnya and media is analyzed. As the paper wrote, “soon after the end of first Chechen war, former chief of group of federal forces, Colonel General Leonti Shevtsov admitted: “I now realize that it is impossible to win the war without information support. We should be friends with press”. According to “Kommersant”, Chief of General Staff Anatoly Kvashin had personally forbidden to indulge the representatives of independent media in Mozdok. Employees of the central apparatus of the Ministry of Defense and officials of the General Staff of the Russian army were not allowed to directly communicate with journalists by the Minister of Defense. (Kommersant, 1999)

As an example of new information policy has become a meeting which took place on the 25th of May in 2000, where Security Council Secretary Sergei Ivanov met the leaders of major media sources in Moscow. The press was presented by the state agency ITAR-TASS and RIA “Novosti”, state television companies ORT and RTR , the independent media- “Interfax” agency, NTV, “Kommersant”, “Moscovskiye Novosti” (Moscow News), “Pravda” (True), “Argumenty I Fakty (Arguments and Facts), “Komsomol’skaya Pravda”, “Segodnia” (Today) and “Nezavisimaya Gazeta” (Independent Newspaper). The meeting was also attended by the Minister for Press Michael Lessin, and some other government authorities. The topic of conversation was the events in Chechnya. (Panfilov O., 2005)

 This meeting has established not only the state’s monopoly on information about Chechnya, but also gave state officials a right to be engaged in propaganda, which was a dissemination of false information leading to a distortion of real events in Chechnya.

Government officials also used propaganda during the first military campaign, but with the outbreak of second war, distributed information had no any logic or common sense. Official sources did not care about the fact, that the information they spread was refuted or looked rather ridiculous even for people without any military experience.

The most popular topic of interviews of officials during the second campaign was the announcement of the end of the war. For example, on the 26th of June, 2000, Commander of the Joint Groups of Russian Forces in Chechnya, General Gennady Troshev said that “the war as such on the territory of Chechnya is complete”. He also said that military “is not acting offensive, does not cause air and artillery strikes”. However, same day the agency “Interfax” and the Agency of military news spread the message that “for past 24 hours, there were 11-12 flights made by combat aircraft Su-25, two flights on aerial reconnaissance and more than 30 sorties of helicopters. (Panfilov O., 2005)  

Image of an enemy in media covering the Chechen conflict.

Covering the Chechen conflict, Russian media have taken different positions: one group was justifying Chechen resistance movement (explaining it as a struggle for freedom, independence, etc.), while others were defending the official position of Russian government (Chechnya is an integral part of Russia, so armed groups are illegal and must be destroyed), and the third group (the smallest) tried to cover the conflict from the centrist position, not taking one side. These differences in coverage of the conflict are explained by the different positions of specific media, since they represent interests of distinct social groups of population.

“An important feature in covering events in Chechnya was the transformation of the positions of various media at certain stages of the conflict. During the first Chechen campaign (1994-96) most of the media treated Chechen resistance movement with sympathy and often carried reports on their side. However, during the counter-terrorist operation, which started in 1999, almost all of the media justified it, as a need to protect Russia against the threat posed by Chechnya, which became the basis of international terrorism”-writes professor J. Gakayev. (Gakayev J., 2001:82)

Images of Chechens were constantly transformed in journalist reports. In first Chechen war, citizens carrying out armed actions in illegal armed groups were known as militias. From 1996 until the beginning of the antiterrorist operation in 1999, an image of the enemy took a form of “Wahhabi”-a bearded armed man, with fanatical sight. Since the beginning of the second Chechen campaign and especially after the USA has announced the “war on terror”, Chechen armed groups were more often called “international terrorists”.

By the beginning of the counterterrorist campaign in summer of 1999, public opinion in Russia entirely supported government and the military. Basayev’s raid into Dagestan and explosions in the cities of Russia made public to have a supportive opinion about military option in solving Chechen problem. Second Chechen war was preceded by an unprecedented anti-Chechen campaign by Russian media, due to terrorist attacks in Moscow, Volgodonsk and Makhachkala, in which hundreds of civilians were killed. Since then all Chechens were the prime suspects and defendants a priori. For about two years Russian audience and readers has been shown and told what kind of society has been built by Chechens, a society, where slave trade and taking hostages for ransom seemed to be normal. Footage of torture and humiliation of hostages, shooting of people in Grozny, threats of terrorists attacks from militant leaders-all these factors played an important role in making Russian society to be ready to start another massacre to destruct these “bad people”.

As it was written in “Nezavisimaya Gazeta” (Independent Newspaper): “It is noteworthy that this time is more favorable than in December of 1994. Today, public opinion in Russia itself, as well as in the world, prepared for war campaign by the media. If during 1994-96, journalist reports about Russian troops’ barbarity invaded in all the media, in a case of new war, Chechens can meet an information blockade, as not many reporters would dare to work on the territory, where some of their colleagues were kept as hostages and where slave trade is actually legalized”. (Rotar I., 1999) (Ротарь И. Кто стоит за сепаратистами?// Независимая газета от 15.09.99) The authorities and the military introduced a very strict censorship on information from the conflict zone.  

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