Vladimir Putin: Good afternoon.
I have read your appeal and I have asked you to meet me today in this connection. Let me say right off that I do not subscribe to everything in your appeal. Let us take a look at it. You write: “We agree that some actions of journalists and the media during the last terrorist act in Moscow were wrong, but these were mistakes and not a deliberate neglect of the danger such actions carried.” I cannot agree with that. Let us be honest, let us not be disingenuous.
The TV picture on a national channel on the day of the storming, several minutes before the storming, showed the movements of the special forces and spoke about what was happening inside the building, and that could have caused a huge tragedy. The people who did this could not but be aware of it. That was a deliberate breach of the agreement with the Press Ministry, deliberate flouting of the instructions of the head of the special operation headquarters, who proceeded in strict accordance with the law in the fight against terrorism. Why was this done? It is clear why, and you know it full well. To boost the channel’s rating, to raise its capitalisation and ultimately to earn money. You know my position. I have repeatedly said and I can say it again: I think that the independence of the media will only be achieved when the media become economically independent. And in this context one has to be grateful to God that somebody manages to earn some money. But it can’t be done at any price and at the expense of our citizens if, of course, those who do it identify themselves with our citizens.
At the same time one cannot but note some of the things that are undoubtedly fair. You write: “We respect the position of the Federal Assembly and we support the move to ensure the stability and security of society. At the same time the amendments passed do not address that task. Their adoption will be counterproductive, will debar some media outlets from objective coverage of events as well as the coverage of key problems of our country from a responsible civic angle.”
I think we should heed that part of the message. I agree that it would be useful to pass legislation to clarify and specify the rules of how journalists should behave in emergency situations. I believe that uniform rules of coverage and clear-cut forms of joint work with the government, the security structures and the media in extreme situations are needed. I think that we could discuss these ideas and some other proposals in an informal atmosphere.
I would like to note that the main weapon of the terrorists is not bullets or machine guns or grenades, it is blackmail of the state and its citizens, and the best means of blackmail is to turn a terrorist act into a public spectacle. To use the humiliated and constrained position of the hostages and their close ones to achieve their goals. Don’t help them in that.
You remember that during the days of the hostage crisis I repeatedly asked politicians to display the maximum of restraint and responsibility. Every careless word could result in a catastrophe.
But the price of a journalist’s word is equally important in such situations. Journalists’ awareness of the degree of the public threat is equally important. I would like to take this opportunity, notwithstanding my critical remarks made at the beginning, to thank the Russian media for their civic stand, for displaying their competence and the necessary restraint in the extremely difficult conditions of those days – with very few exceptions.
I would like to stress the special significance of your trade and your work in the fight against the ideology of terrorism. Among the instruments at the disposal of the civil society in Russia the media is one of the most effective and important. And of course no democratic government can exist without the publicity and openness provided by the media.
That is why it is so important to find a balance between the restrictions connected with the conduct of a specific special operation at a concrete time and in a concrete place in order to rescue people and secure the interests of the state, on the one hand, and keeping society properly informed about the actions of the state on the other so that the state does not come to regard itself as infallible.
I hope to hear from you about every aspect of modernising the media laws and not just about regulating media work in extreme situations. Finally, I believe that the media community, as you write in your appeal, would do well to work out its own corporate norms of behaviour in extreme situations. I am convinced that if the authorities and the media community meet each other half-way, they will be able to find the golden mean, the balance I referred to earlier. That is all I wanted to say by way of opening the discussion.
Brief intervention during the discussion
I don’t think you should waste your time persuading me to veto these laws. I have already done so. Before this meeting I signed two letters to both houses addressed to [Speaker of the Federation Council] Mironov and [Speaker of the State Duma] Seleznyov. I ask the heads of the two chambers to set up a conciliation commission and agree the texts with the media representatives. At the same time, I would like to draw your attention to what you said about some improprieties in the activities of the law enforcement bodies. I agree with these remarks. As regards the law enforcement bodies, we will have a separate discussion and a review of all the aspects, although I must say that on previous occasions we lost more hostages. We lost more than 170 hostages and let all the militants escape in Budyonnovsk. And that created conditions for them to come back.
But today we are not discussing the law enforcement bodies, the point at issue is how to best organise the work of the media without restricting media freedom and citizens’ access to information. You said that you would like to know who heads up the headquarters, and how its activities are regulated and so on. I would like to remind all those present that the law on combating terrorism has everything and in the event, in spite of some slip-ups in the work of the law enforcement bodies – which cannot be denied – the location of the headquarters and who was its head were known. The headquarters made known to the media its requirements under the law. The example I have cited shows that some members of your profession knowingly violated these rules, ignored the law and put the lives of many people in danger. They did so in order to boost their rating, their capitalisation and ultimately to earn more money.
By the way, that is inadmissible in the frame of reference of your profession because it involves the use of special privileges to gain an edge on the competition. That is what you have said.
And secondly, we should have a clear idea of the role and the meaning of the activities of the mass media and who should be doing what in our country. When I hear some of our colleagues say: our actions have saved five lives, six lives… that is not right. Special services should save people and the mass media should inform society about the events, the activities of the government bodies without any embellishments and honestly present the information and report the truth.
The state should not get the idea that it is infallible in its actions. In this, the media have the key role to play. What to do about the laws that have already been passed and that are often broken both by the state and by all the other parties involved in the process? The topic we are discussing is extremely important and acute for any country, but especially for our country.
In this country everything is still in flux and I am grateful to the journalists who give objective views. It does help the authorities to sort out their own miscalculations and stimulate them to work more effectively. But, to repeat, every man must be doing his job. It is not the business of journalists to save hostages. Nothing good will happen if the secret services start informing the public about their activities and the journalists start to rescue people. That is what happened in Budyonnovsk and you know the outcome. I repeat: there is no need to persuade me to veto these laws because I have already done so. Let us discuss the essence of the bills that have aroused your concern or questions. Let us discuss the substance of these bills.