War crimes - or faked 'news'?

By Igor Shrurenko (posted 3-10-00)www.tenc.net [emperors clothes]

DURHAM -- No news is good news. Lately, this formula seems to be a tacit rule-of-the-thumb on presenting Russia in major publications and on TV news networks. According to the mainstream media, the only things now coming from Russia are new atrocities the Russians are practicing just for the sport of it.

The most recent example came last week, when major world TV networks provided us with a vivid picture of mutilated bodies being dumped into a pit. Commentaries said the pit contained the bodies of Chechen civilians detained for interrogation by Russian troops. It was said also that the bodies showed the signs of torture.

The report came from German N-24 Television; correspondent Frank Hoefler said he had witnessed and documented war crimes. The BBC broadcast the film, provoking indignation all over the globe.

But it seemed that no one in the U.S. media questioned the authenticity of what was shown. The Russians have been bad guys for decades, after all. For the Western media, reinforcing negative stereotypes about Russia is one of the easiest things to do.

Human rights activists demanded a full-scale investigation. The U.S. Department of State expressed concern. European Parliament members called to add new sanctions against Russia to those now in place.

But the balloon has blown up unexpectedly. Hoefler, the Moscow correspondent of N-24, admitted that the film was in fact bought from a Russian journalist, Oleg Blotsky. Blotsky said that the film actually showed a mass burial of Chechen rebels killed in fighting with Russian troops. Blotsky was going to sue N-24, he said.

Then N-24 sacked Hoefler. According to Deutsche Presse-Agentur news service, the director of N-24 said that Hoefler distorted the footage and passed it off as his own documentation of war crimes.

What came in the West's mainstream media the morning after? Apologies? No. Calls or more objective coverage of Russia? Missed again.

Mud sticks, and the faked media event shown on major networks has had a real effect. The European Union imposed new sanctions on Russia, putting another trade barrier on Russian steel exports to the EU. As a result of this pseudo-event, the negative stereotype of Russia had been sustained, allowing more negative coverage in the future.

When it comes to international coverage, the U.S. media seem not to recognize the basic journalistic standards accepted for coverage of domestic affairs. At home, no racial, national, gender or minority bias is allowed. Accusations need to be substantiated and well-sourced. Any consciously false reporting, when spotted, will cause a scandal within the journalistic community.

Abroad, anything goes. The time of such sober and distinguished foreign correspondents as David Remnick (formerly The Washington Post's Moscow correspondent) is past. Now correspondents are being posted for much shorter periods of time; they have neither time nor, sometimes, the desire to go deep into an alien culture and try to understand it. All they want is to scoop and move on.

Since U.S. TV networks' international coverage is largely limited to reporting calamities and major bloodshed, the easiest way to scoop is to discover an even bigger calamity, even more bloodshed.

And as covering Russia means applying much lower or non-existent journalistic standards, reporters feel free to rely on plain rumors and bought stories, and on information carefully planted by intelligence services and special-interest groups.

The N-24 faked story made major news. At the same time the networks did not report on the story of Alla Geifman, a 13-year-old Jewish Russian girl who was captured by the Chechen rebels and had two fingers cut off. She was released in a special operation and later was invited to the United States for medical treatment. The U.S. Embassy in Moscow has denied her a visa to enter the U.S.

According to "Kommersant," one of the most respected Russian dailies, her father said she was denied a visa because U.S. officials were afraid the girl, while in the United States, would tell the truth about what is really going on in Chechnya. With the only-negative-goes approach to Russia, this human story is unlikely to get any coverage.

Likewise, the story of an ITAR-TASS photographer Vladimir Yazina, taken prisoner and later killed in cold blood by the rebels, has not made it in the major U.S. news.

The Chechens are not exactly the good guys the Western media like to present them as. And reinforcing negative stereotypes about Russia is easy. To find and publish the truth, even if it goes against the grain, has always been difficult.

Igor Shnurenko is a media fellow at the DeWitt Wallace Center for Communications and Journalism at Duke University. A Russian journalist and writer, he has worked in the independent press since 1989.

Re-posted from The NEws Observor at http://www.news-observer.com/daily/2000/03/10/edit04.html

Further reading...

For another view of US/Russian relations see A View from Pakistan at http://emperors-clothes.com/analysis/ahmad.htm

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