Russia Passes Laws Curbing Press Access

Russian lawmakers passed amendments Friday that would sharply curb news coverage of anti-terrorist operations and prohibit the media from carrying rebel statements — a legislative step officials called increasingly urgent in light of last week's hostage crisis.

The hostage-takers "had elaborated a media plan," Press Minister Mikhail Lesin said in an interview published in the Izvestia daily Friday.

"They were very well prepared from the point of view of the Russian mass media, journalists and newsmakers. And they used this situation very well."

The lower house of parliament gave preliminary approval to the amendments — one to a law on terrorism and the other to a media law — on Oct. 23, just hours before dozens of heavily armed attackers burst into a Moscow theater and took more than 800 people hostage.

Special forces stormed the theater three days later, killing 41 of the attackers. At least 119 of the hostages died, the vast majority felled by a fentanyl compound that troops used to incapacitate the terrorists.

Up to 172 former hostages, including six children, remained hospitalized Friday, said Lyubov Zhomova, a spokeswoman for the Moscow health committee. Some 479 have been discharged, she said.

The new amendments were approved by a vote of 231-106, with one abstention. The changes, which must still be approved by the upper house and signed by President Vladimir Putin, would prohibit the media from distributing information that hinders counter-terrorist operations or reveals information about security forces and tactics.

The measures also would ban the publication or broadcast of "statements by individuals that are aimed at hindering a counter-terrorist operation and/or justifying resistance to a counter-terrorist operation" and other "propaganda or justification of extremist activity."

Speaking in favor of the amendments on Friday, centrist legislator Vyacheslav Volodin said that "the journalistic community should take more responsibility."

"Things should not be allowed to be taken too far," he said.

But human rights activists said the new law could further stifle debate and coverage of the war in Chechnya — and keep Russians from being informed about the conflict.

"Everything we're discussing here today can now fall under the rubric of hindering a counter-terrorist operation," said Oleg Panfilov, director of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, who took part in a human-rights forum Friday on Russia's conduct during the hostage crisis.

"This may be the last time we can talk about this," he warned.

Coverage of the war in Chechnya is already severely restricted, and it is nearly impossible for journalists to work in the region except in close coordination with the military.

But last week's hostage crisis unfolded squarely in the media glare. Most television stations carried the standoff live for hours at a time, radio stations broadcast cell-phone conversations with hostages, and many TV channels showed top officials arriving and departing from the emergency headquarters set up next to the theater.

The hostage-takers even invited two crews from NTV television inside the theater. But the interview given by the ringleaders was not broadcast in full, in spite of the attackers' demands. A hastily arranged cell-phone conversation between the station and one of the hostage-takers was abruptly cut off before it could begin; the anchor said the line had been cut, and no attempt appeared to be made to restore it.

Lesin expressed gratitude to the Russian media for its "understanding and support" during the crisis, and said that the media had played a positive role.

"Any action by the media could have provoked an unpredictable reaction," he was quoted as saying in Izvestia.

Also Friday, the lower house voted 288-1, with two abstentions, to prohibit returning terrorists' bodies to their families or revealing their place of burial.

Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov renewed calls for Denmark to extradite Akhmed Zakayev, a foreign emissary for Aslan Maskhadov, a rebel leader who is also Chechnya's elected president. Zakayev was detained in Copenhagen earlier this week after attending a two-day conference on Chechnya.

Ivanov said Russian prosecutors had sent all the necessary documents concerning Moscow's allegations against Zakayev to Copenhagen.

A Chechen Web site published what it claimed to be a statement from the main Chechen rebel leader, Shamil Basayev, whom Moscow has accused of directing the theater raid with the approval of Maskhadov.

In the statement, Basayev excoriated the international community for commiserating with Russia but not the Chechen victims of the war. He said that the Chechens would continue to carry the war into Russia, and that subsequent attacks would not aim at taking hostages but at "exacting maximum harm to the enemy."

The statement's authenticity could not be confirmed. A spokesman for the Kremlin information office on Chechnya refused to comment.