Fallout from ABC Basayev interview

ABC’s decision to nationally screen an interview with Shamil Basayev on Nightline last week (see here for details) has caused a furore in Russia, prompting the Russian Foreign Ministry to call the US embassy’s top official (the US is currently between Ambassadors) for a few stern words, and for the Defence Ministry to declare that ABC reporters are now persona non grata – they will be given no access to the Russian military, and military personnel are barred from contact with ABC staff.

It’s fascinating to note that the difference in response to ABC’s decision to screen an interview, and US station Channel 4’s decision to screen a similar interview earlier this year. Then, Russian took no action beyond complaining bitterly and calling the UK ambassador in for a "chat".

Anyway, here’s what Russia had to say, reported by the Moscow Times:

The Foreign Ministry on Friday summoned the U.S. Embassy’s deputy chief of mission, Daniel Russell, to convey "our views over the broadcast of an interview with a terrorist," ministry spokesman Boris Malakhov said.

"The network has shown outrageous neglect of the standards of responsible journalism and general human values," he said in a statement on the ministry’s web site.

[Defence Minister Sergei] Ivanov said Sunday that the Defense Ministry now considered ABC persona non grata. "Today, I have given the order to the head of the press service that not one serviceman of the Defense Ministry should have contact with the American television channel ABC," Ivanov said on Rossia television. "We will continue to act openly with the press, but this channel will not be invited to the Defense Ministry and no interviews will ever be given to it."

Interesting to note also that, while the Defence Ministry has taken things to the extreme of barring staff from contact with ABC staff, the Foreign Ministry has declined to take such measures – restraining itself to strongly worded comments.  Signs of rifts between the two organisation, perhaps or (probably more likely) part of a co-ordinated response.

The US embassy would say little beyond confirming the meeting, but ABC robustly defended their position:

"ABC News will continue to report fully on news from Russia and that important region," it said in an e-mailed statement.

ABC also said it had offered the Russian government an opportunity to participate in "Nightline" or a future broadcast and the offer was declined.

Host Ted Koppel said on "Nightline" that viewers had the right to hear the viewpoint of any newsmaker. "Then we can reject or accept it, condemn it or embrace it," he said, according to a transcript of the program. "No one should have the authority to make that decision for us. Not our own government, and certainly not somebody else’s.”

I have to confess, I’m a little puzzled by Russia’s response.  My reaction is pretty much the same as ABC’s – I think that Russia is over-reacting.  Although I can understand why Russia would not want to give air-time to a terrorist – control of the press being what it is in Russia, airing an interview like this is bound to put noses out of joint – looking at the content of the interview itself, Basayev stood up and bluntly said "I am a terrorist".  (Although he did also call Russians terrorists for what they are doing in Checnhnya).  Instead of getting into a tiz about ABC’s decision to screen the interview, the Russian government should instead look on it as a propaganda coup.  In America, the biggest public opinion market in the world, Russia’s greatest enemy has essentially compared himself to Osama Bin Laden – America’s greatest enemy.  Russia could be using this as an opportunity to gain public support within America.  Instead, all it is doing is antagonising peopel all over again by showing how little regard it has for core American values like freedom of speech.   

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