November 27th, 2002

Reposted from The Moscow Times.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Yulia Latynina

President Vladimir Putin is expected this week to give final approval to amendments to the laws on combatting terrorism and the mass media. The Federal Assembly passed the amendments as part of the ongoing war on terrorism.

Once the changes go into effect, it will be illegal for the press to disseminate information on the manufacture of weapons, ammunition and explosives. It will be forbidden to print, broadcast or put on the Internet anything that might be construed as propaganda or justification for extremist activities.

No longer will the media be able to publish information describing the methods and tactics used to free hostages.

Russia’s liberals are outraged, calling the amendments an attack on civil rights. That’s ridiculous. Experience has shown that television stations can be shut down, newspapers driven into the ground and journalists silenced without recourse to a law on terrorism. In its amended form the law on combatting terrorism is overkill — like a hitman packing a nuclear bomb. The legislators who rammed the amendments through the Federal Assembly were less interested in reprisals against journalists than they were in doing the Kremlin’s bidding. But our elected representatives forgot one little thing in their haste to make themselves useful: The amendments they approved could significantly hinder the war on terrorism. No one’s questioning that during time of war the mass media cannot and should not serve the function of keeping the public fully informed. War requires deception; fooling the enemy is half the battle.

On the other hand, the mass media can and should serve the function of disseminating disinformation — fooling the terrorists by fooling the people. The press can and should cover those who justify the terrorists’ actions and declare that all of their demands will be met in order to lull the terrorists into a false sense of security, thereby increasing the likelihood of freeing the hostages. The press can and should discuss the weapons used by special forces. It’s up to the security services to feed the press false information about their arsenal.

Parliament has stripped the government of one of its most effective and awesome weapons in the war on terrorism on the pretext that its improper use could result in casualties. In that case let’s take away our swat teams’ machine guns. They might not understand the gravity of the situation and go hold up the nearest convenience store.

While our legislators are busy demonstrating their extraordinary vigilance with regard to the mass media, our police are demonstrating unbelievably starry-eyed idealism with regard to the terrorists. Less than a day after Sunday’s explosions at Spartak Stadium in Vladikavkaz the local police announced that the incident was just a case of vandalism. This announcement was remarkably reminiscent of the police reaction to the bombing outside a Moscow McDonald’s restaurant in October that left one dead. In that case the police promptly announced that the bombing was part of a gangster-related feud. Later it emerged that the bombing had been carried out by the same group that went on to seize the Theater na Dubrovke. If the police hadn’t written the McDonald’s bombing off as a vendetta, they might have prevented the “Nord Ost” tragedy.

The bombs in Vladikavkaz — located a stone’s throw from Chechnya — might have been planted by vandals. And local legal experts might argue that 1.5 kilograms of dynamite placed next to a lamp post fits the legal definition of “embezzlement of government property” or “exceeding authority.” But that judgment could only be made at the end, not the beginning, of the investigation.

You get the impression that the police simply don’t want to keep track of the acts of terrorism breaking out all over the country, just as they don’t want to record robberies, murders and rapes — so as not to spoil their record of success in solving crimes. Too bad that creative book-keeping doesn’t help win the war on terrorism.

Yulia Latynina is author and host of “Yest Mneniye” on TVS (a Russian Television channel) and a frequent contributor to The Moscow Times.