Why the Bombings Weren't Breaking News in Russia

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The news of the subway suicide bombings in Moscow on Monday — Russia's worst terrorist attack in five years — led news broadcasts around the world almost immediately after the event unfolded. But in Russia, viewers who tuned in to the country's three main television networks that morning had little reason to suspect anything was amiss — they were watching shows about cooking and makeovers.

The networks, all of which are controlled by the government or state-owned companies, stayed with their regularly scheduled programming as the tragedy unfolded, waiting for up to two hours to provide their first substantive reports on the attacks, which killed at least 39 people. Bloggers and political commentators say the slow response of the networks — Channel One, Rossia 1 and NTV — is indicative of the state of television journalism in Russia today: the major broadcasters have been so cowed by the Kremlin over the past decade, they're incapable of effectively covering events of vital national importance.

"This is a city with millions of people," says Arina Borodina, a television critic with the independent-minded Kommersant newspaper in Moscow. "Can you imagine an attack during rush hour in New York or Paris, and a television channel doesn't show anything for two hours?"

Channel One was the first to air a short announcement on the bombings at 8:30 a.m. Monday, about a half hour after the attacks, followed by a brief update at 9 a.m. But the network then proceeded to go back to its three hours of regularly scheduled broadcasting, which included a show about healthy living and another in which women get makeovers under the watchful eye of a prominent designer, before finally covering the tragedy live from the scene at noon. In an e-mail message, Channel One spokeswoman Larisa Krymova said the entertainment shows were not pulled because "they are not humorous programs, which are typically canceled in such events."

The other networks were even more delayed. State-owned Rossia 1 broadcast a short news report about an hour after the bombers struck, followed by a documentary about a famous folk singer and a police drama. NTV, which was once the benchmark for Russian television journalism and is now controlled by the state-owned gas giant Gazprom, was last to report on the bombings at 10 a.m. — a full two hours after the first blast. The story came "as soon as [the channel] had video footage from the scene of the tragedy," network spokeswoman Maria Bezborodova said in an e-mail. NTV's report was preceded by a cooking show called Culinary Competition and, curiously, a weekly crime wrap-up that did not mention the subway bombings.

Critics of the networks' coverage said news anchors could have at least advised viewers to refrain from taking the notoriously packed Moscow subway, particularly when it was unclear if there could be subsequent attacks. Russians increasingly rely on television for this type of information — according to a 2006 survey by the state-friendly polling agency VTsIOM, in fact, 85% of people prefer to get their news from the TV. But in the network vacuum of information Monday, millions of Russians turned to the Internet or radio for news on the bombings instead.

Ever since then-President Vladimir Putin came to power a decade ago, the Kremlin has steadily reined in the coverage of the main television networks. In the 1990s, the channels tended to slant their coverage in favor of their oligarch owners, but they also produced incisive investigative reports previously unknown to a population raised on Soviet propaganda. The Kremlin has repeatedly denied dictating to the networks how major events should be covered, but Channel One, Rossia 1 and NTV almost never stray from the official line these days and often provide fawning coverage of Putin, now the Prime Minister, and the current President, Dmitri Medvedev.

Borodina said that Monday's delayed coverage was reminiscent of the networks' initial handling of the Beslan school crisis in 2004, when terrorists took hundreds of people hostage in a school in southern Russia. After a standoff of three days, security forces stormed the building, resulting in a gun battle that left more than 300 people dead, many of them children. For 30 minutes after the security forces' assault, however, Channel One continued to broadcast a film called Lady With a Parrot, while Rossia aired a travel show called In Search of Adventures. Of the three national networks, only NTV carried live reports from the scene right away.

Anna Kachkayeva, a professor at Moscow State University and television critic with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, says the reluctance of the networks to broadcast breaking coverage of Monday's attacks was only partially due to the pressure they feel to produce reporting acceptable to the Kremlin. She says the art of live coverage has also disappeared in the past 10 years as news broadcasts have become more and more scripted. "There just aren't very many people around anymore who can do live television," Kachkayeva says.

But not all television critics believe the networks botched the coverage of the suicide attacks. Anatoly Lysenko, a pioneer in contemporary Russian television who ran the station banned by the leaders of the 1991 coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, says he thought the channels reported responsibly and helped avoid a citywide panic. "All terrorist attacks are done with the goal of getting news coverage and scaring society," Lysenko says. As to whether the networks likely consulted with senior government officials before airing their reports, he added: "Of course there was an exchange of opinions. Television in our country is too powerful to not be controlled."