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From AJR,   December 2000  issue

Smoke Screen   

Reporters covering the sinking of the Russian submarine Kursk struggled to penetrate a barrage of disinformation that hearkened back to the unlamented Soviet era.


By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi (sricchia@iupui.edu) is an AJR senior contributing writer.     


THE NAME IGOR DYGALO long will be etched in the psyches of journalists who covered the sinking of the nuclear submarine Kursk in the Arctic waters of the Barents Sea. The Russian Navy spokesman masterminded a smoke screen of contradictions, evasion and misinformation that would have made Vladimir Lenin proud.
To American reporters working the Russia beat, it was déjà vu, a throwback to the Soviet-style instincts of operating in secrecy and deceiving the media with what some in the foreign press corps describe as "outright lies." Accuracy quickly became a casualty in the wake of Russia's worst peacetime naval disaster, which killed all 118 men on board.
"Whether it was bad information or plants, there was a feeling that we all were being used," says Colin McMahon, the Chicago Tribune's Moscow bureau chief. "You sometimes can smell a rat."
Western journalists, interviewed in Moscow, said they were overwhelmed by a barrage of versions--official and unofficial--of the events that occurred aboard the submarine. They worried constantly about being manipulated by Russian authorities. Their frustration grew as officials sealed off Severomorsk, the key naval base, and surrounding towns, in order to keep reporters from contacting the crews' families.
It all boiled down to a chilling reality: There was no sure-fire way to separate truth from falsehood, especially in the early stages of coverage. Reporters had to find ways to circumvent the official prattle and move beyond the big lie. As they did so, their coverage also became a referendum on the government of President Vladimir Putin, whose closed-door secrecy seemed out of touch in the new Russia.
The story that held the world spellbound for nine days began in a conspiracy of silence. Official reports did not surface until August 14, two days after explosions sent icy waters crashing through the 500-foot submarine. When the news finally broke, most of the government-sanctioned information was siphoned through a single source, Dygalo, and it emanated from a single institution, the Russian Navy.
Military sources initially indicated that the submarine simply malfunctioned and was trapped on the ocean bottom. At one point, Dygalo announced that rescue ships were rushing to assist the stricken vessel and were in radio contact with the crew. The Russian public was told that power lines and oxygen had been successfully connected to the Kursk and that survivors were tapping out SOS messages on the hull.
In the end, none of these scenarios has proven to be true.
When the blast first happened, for instance, Dygalo speculated that the Kursk had collided with a foreign submarine, most likely American or British, or perhaps with an unexploded World War II land mine. Not content with that version, reporters for the Associated Press and other news agencies started working their sources, and were told by Russian naval officers that there was evidence of human error.
"By talking to the right people, we were able to put out an accurate picture early on," says AP Moscow Bureau Chief Barry Renfrew, who kept reporters working around the clock for 10 days. He credits Russian reporters on AP's staff with spearheading breakthroughs by the next day. "We had senior naval officers on the record telling us that there had been no contact, no hookup of oxygen or power, and minimal chance for rescue. It was a matter of working the phones."
Local journalists at Komsomolskaya Pravda, a newspaper in the northern city of Murmansk, scored one of the biggest coups in the early days of reporting. Through a deep throat within the Navy, the newspaper obtained a list of the men on board the Kursk and published it the fifth day after the disaster. An editor's note explained that--in true Russian style--the paper had paid 18,000 rubles ($650) for the list. Meanwhile, the military remained mute.
Foreign correspondents hoping to reach families of the Kursk crew relied on their ingenuity. Reporters were turned away at checkpoints near the submarine base and adjoining residential communities, forcing them to set up camp in Murmansk, a two-and-a-half-hour drive from the base.
When Robyn Dixon of the Los Angeles Times tried to interview relatives at the Murmansk bus station, she was often stymied by Navy escorts who swept them away from the press. To slip past the official stonewalling, Dixon obtained pages from a telephone book with listings from one of the sealed-off towns. Operating out of a cramped hotel room, she made calls to seek information about relatives who awaited word of survivors, and to get details of the mood in the towns. She also matched names of the Kursk crew that had run in Komsomolskaya Pravda with the telephone listings. "It was a tough assignment," Dixon says. "Unlike a normal story, we couldn't go straight to where everything was happening."
Time magazine Moscow Bureau Chief Paul Quinn-Judge says reporters befriended bus drivers who were transporting relatives from Murmansk, the capital of Russia's polar region, to the restricted communities around the base. "You ask around and find someone locally who has friends in those towns and get them to call in for you," says Quinn-Judge. "By standard flat-footed reporting, you can get to people."
The Washington Post's Daniel Williams turned to independent experts to evaluate the credibility of military and government spokespersons and help spot untruths. "But I'm not sure we were 100 percent successful," admits the veteran foreign correspondent. "You sensed that there was so much deception. The tapping [of survivors] for instance. I and others reported this attributing it to Russian officials, and it was just false. It was frustrating. There was no direct access, and the official information was totally off the wall."
In the midst of his hunt for firsthand information, Williams spotted a story about a private company, Sovneft Oil, which had chartered a plane to fly relatives from Moscow to Murmansk. He picked up the phone and talked his way on board. Williams' piece included snippets of in-flight conversations from outraged families who had spent anguished days in front of their televisions, attempting to filter the contradictions and half-truths, not knowing whether loved ones were dead or alive.
"Yes, I think they killed our boys," Williams quoted one distraught woman saying. "How did such a thing like this happen?" a grieving father wondered. Many questioned the government's statements, which had given them false hope.
New York Times reporter Sabrina Tavernise cultivated sources in Murmansk to help establish contact with relatives and sought out submarine workers to provide insight into what could have caused the 13,500-ton vessel to sink. "We had to carefully piece everything together detail by detail," says Tavernise, who was covering her first big overseas story for the Times. "We still were forced to deal with so much disinformation.... It was impossible to focus on what really happened." Instead, she turned to filing "life in sailor-town stories," as she describes her human interest features.
Meanwhile, back in Moscow, her colleague, Patrick Tyler, worked on broader analysis pieces, speculating on whether the loss of the Kursk signaled a new kind of post-Soviet turn in Russia's political evolution. Tyler's stories clearly outlined the government's contradictions.
On August 18, he wrote: "Stark differences were emerging between Moscow and Washington over the fundamental cause of the disaster. Russia's defense minister said he had Ćirrefutable data' pointing to a collision. But senior American defense and intelligence officers pointed to a powerful internal explosion." Tyler also drew attention to the outrage spreading through the Russian media over the lack of information, particularly regarding survivors.
The notion that former communist habits of secrecy and misinformation continued in the new Russia quickly became part of the story in both the Western and Russian press. The Moscow Times, an English-language newspaper, reported that Russian officials presented "xenophobic fantasies as solid facts" and that the list of falsehoods grew longer each day. The newspaper quoted Oleg Panfilov, head of the Moscow-based media watchdog the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, as saying that state officials were lying, deceiving and hushing-up--just like they did in Soviet times.
"What made it absurd is the fact that everything around them has changed. The country is different and so are the media," says Panfilov, who praised Russian journalists for openly criticizing the government's handling of the tragedy. Russia's provincial media outlets, which often tend to be divided on political issues, suddenly found a united voice and began firing a barrage of questions at the political and military leadership: Why weren't offers of foreign help immediately accepted? Why was the Navy too poorly trained or unequipped to conduct a proper rescue operation? How were the explosions ignited in the first place? What was the realistic hope for survivors? How were their families being treated?
Stories in the Western media quickly picked up on that theme. In a sidebar headlined "Russia Press Strikes Back," Newsweek reporter Christian Caryl explored how the Russian media were challenging President Putin's spin control on events surrounding the Kursk. Caryl cited as an example an obscure Murmansk newspaper that broke through the Navy cordon around the families to conduct the first interview with the wife of an officer on board. The grieving woman complained loudly that families were getting more information from TV than from the military. The paper posted the story on its Web site for maximum exposure.
Through it all, there was constant speculation about the Russian government's attitude toward media control. Some media experts viewed it as clear evidence of Putin's media management strategy, moving away from any progress toward openness and disclosure back to a Cold War, siege mentality. The formula followed by government spokesmen like Dygalo had a familiar ring: first, denial; then admission and control of information; finally, a far-fetched spin cycle that placed blame on one-time enemies to avoid embarrassing the government. It was easy to find historical comparisons.
In a New York Times story, Tyler noted that many Russians "harked back to Chernobyl, where the worst nuclear accident in history spewed radiation into the heavens for days in late April and early May 1986 before Soviet leaders begrudgingly admitted something had gone terribly wrong." Journalists doubted the sincerity of Putin's acknowledgement in late August that the disclosure of information by the government could have been handled better.
Some, like Quinn-Judge, quickly turned the story of human tragedy into a study of the mentality of the new Russian leadership. In a commentary, Quinn-Judge wrote: "Putin still believes that the needs of the state always come first; individual concerns come a distant second." That could explain the knee-jerk reaction to putting national pride before telling the truth and saving lives.
"We looked at it as a reflection of the political thinking that goes on behind news management in this country," Quinn-Judge says. "It says a lot about Putin himself and his approach to power and institutions of power. It's becoming obvious that we are dealing with a regime that has an Ćus or them' mentality when it comes to the press."
The Chicago Tribune's McMahon agrees. American journalists, he says, face special problems. "The cynicism about what we do is so great. The [Russian] government thinks there's a plot and that we're tools of the CIA. There's no way around this and no way to talk somebody out of it; we can't prove we're not anti-Russian," says McMahon, who has covered the region for three years. "It's a great frustration."
Months later, as dramatic details of the blast continued to be published, the world still could only speculate on the cause. A Russian government commission is investigating, but its findings may not be known for months.
For Russia watchers, attention shifted to the Kursk's chilling media legacy, viewed by many as a strong indicator that Putin is inching closer to state control over the press and even Soviet-style censorship.
Putin's critics point to other danger signs, including a vaguely worded "information doctrine," introduced by the increasingly powerful Russian Security Council in June and signed by the president. The 46-page statement sets out guidelines for the executive branch regarding the mass media, including the foreign press corps. According to an opinion piece in the Moscow Times, the doctrine demonstrates "unambiguously" that Putin views the media as an appropriate sphere for executive-branch administration and control. Political analysts see it as another move by Putin toward silencing independent journalists.
In September, media watchdog Oleg Panfilov told the Moscow Times: "Putin truly believes that it was the press that complicated matters with Kursk--it made too much noise, put him in an unpleasant situation, spoiled his image. So he will take his revenge."