Tracing the Chechen Trace
On Saturday night, November 11, a Vnukovo Airlines craft with 48 passengers and 10 crew on board was hijacked on the way from the Dagestani capital of Makhachkala to Moscow and redirected to Israel. The whole drama ended on Sunday morning when the plane landed in the Uvda army base near Tel Aviv, where the hijacker was disarmed by the Israeli security forces. The initial reports were so alarming that it caused the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, to alter his flight to the United States and return to Israel. The information about the number and identity of the hijackers varied throughout the night and Sunday: unknown perpetuators, Chechen extremists wanting to join the Palestine uprising, a twenty-year-old "unbalanced" or "insane" Chechen, Russian citizen Zagir Guseynov etc,. The true identity of the hijacker was revealed on Sunday afternoon: Akhmed Avnerkhan Amirkhanov of Dagestan, 27 years of age, insane. In any case the blame-it-on-the-Chechens syndrome played a decisive role in the method of reporting long before any facts were actually revealed.
We have looked at Czech, Russian and international (mainly Anglo-American) media to find out how they reported on the incident. When commenting on the hijacking most of the agencies and newspapers relied on Israeli sources, especially radio, which could not be anything but affected by the current extraordinary situation in Israel. It is from the Israeli sources that most of the misinformation and rumors came from. It also has to be said that since the hijacking happened during a weekend, most of the newspapers failed (or at least had the possibility to fail) to become victims and spreaders misinformation. On Monday, more or less correct information was available.
Media observed: ČTK, MF Dnes, Lidové noviny, Blesk, Právo, Metro, Hospodářské noviny, Zemské noviny/Slovo, Moravskoslezský den, Czech TV
A majority of the Czech media use the information provided by the Czech News Agency (ČTK) whose coverage of world events depends mostly on the information provided by major world news agencies. Though ČTK’s reporting is highly appreciated in the Czech Republic, such a dependency makes it vulnerable to all the drawbacks of the globalized media coverage. The effect then multiplies by funneling the reporting into the national and local press and the final picture of world events is often simplified and distorted.
ČTK refers in all its reporting either to Israeli or Russian sources thus calling the hijacker everything from an unknown perpetuator to a twenty-year old youth, either Chechen or Dagestani. The fact that most Czech newspapers are written on Sunday afternoon was clearly reflected in the dailies on Monday.
The most read daily, MF Dnes writes that the hijacker was allegedly an insane Chechen and concludes that the insane message has ruled out the initial estimates that the hijacking was carried out by Chechen Muslim extremists.
Lidové noviny identifies the hijacker as a Russian citizen, Zagir Guseynov, a man with unclear criminal records and contacts with Chechen rebels belonging to the Islamic sect of Wahhabis. The newspaper also states that the Israeli security forces had not ruled out a link between the hijacking and the current crisis in the Middle East.
The tabloid daily Blesk says that the hijacker was a twenty-year-old Chechen who seemed insane.
The daily Právo, quoting BBC and RIA-Novosti says that the insane hijacker’s identity is not clear. He is either Chechen (Israeli radio) or Dagir Gusaynov from Dagestan (Russian media).
Other newspapers simply publish parts of ČTK’s last story of Sunday: "A twenty-year old youth is insane and his bomb is fake, according to the Israeli army. It is not clear whether he is Chechen or Dagestani, according to agencies. Five people had false passports, which were never issued by the Russian Interior Ministry, according to Interfax."
The state owned Czech TV on its main news program on Sunday called the hijacker a Chechen with their Russian reporter adding the adverb "allegedly".
On Tuesday, almost none of the monitored newspapers provided specifics concerning the incident, not even at least to correct the untrue information published on Monday.
Media observed: NTV TV, ORT TV, RBK, Lenta.ru, Polit.ru, Rambler.ru, Gazeta.ru, Rossiyskaya gazeta, Izvestia.
Russian media was the second most important source of information on the incident, which was used also by other media. Also their reporting was surrounded by various rumors and false information. Here we based our survey mainly on news from the internet which was already available on Sunday as well as on Monday.
The first news about the hijacking appeared on Sunday morning. Polit.ru informs with reference to the news agency Interfax about several unidentified terrorists.
Lenta.ru reported that the plane landed in Israel and that according to information from the captain of the plane there are four Chechen guerilla fighters armed with automatic firearms and explosives on board. Their only demand is a press conference. According to this information they call their act Al-Aksa (Arabic name for Jerusalem).
NTV TV channel informs that one of the terrorists left the plane to negotiate with the Israeli part.
Gazeta.ru quotes Israeli radio that 2 to 4 terrorists are on board of the plane. As Israeli radio suggests, the terrorists might be Chechen Islamists planning to join the Palestinian rebels.
Two hours later the same source claims that according to information received from the police there are at least three terrorists on board and indicates the names and dates of birth of two of them and a supposed name of the third one.
At the same time the news agency RBK, with reference to AFP, reports that the Russian MFA already knows the names of the terrorists.
The ORT TV channel reports in the afternoon that the plane was hijacked only by one Chechen terrorist who surrendered to Israeli authorities.
Polit.ru informs that, according to the information received from the Russian MFA, there is only one terrorist on board who is from Dagestan, and not four Chechens as was earlier indicated by the FSB.
Later all news agencies present the name of the terrorist as Zagir Guseynov of Dagestan, already tried 3 times for different crimes. Rambler.ru says he is registered by the police as an active member of various religious and extremist organizations. Although the MFA claims Guseynov to be a Dagestani, the news agencies continue to call him a Chechen terrorist, referring to Israeli sources.
Later the true identity of the terrorist is discovered and published and Polit.ru reports that there were only two Chechen passengers on the plane – an 11-year-old boy with his mother.
It is possible that the bodyguards for the Minister of Finance of Dagestan and several FSB servicemen who were on board the ship were mistaken for accomplices.
The terrorist stayed in the cockpit during the whole flight while the FSB servicemen were checking all passengers in a search of the terrorist’s accomplices. One of the FSB agents had a handgun on him which he had not given to the pilots before the flight.
On Monday, November 13, all Russian media inform the public about this incident, only describing the terrorist and mentioning the Russian president’s thanks to Israeli the president for help.
The newspaper Rossiyskaya gazeta reports of the terrorist’s letter to the people of Israel with appeal for help in stopping the war in Chechnya, which was written in a way that would be impossible for an individual that is in good mental health.The newspaper Izvestiya speaks of the hijacking in the same way as all other Russian mass media, although still on Monday morning calling him a 20-year old Chechen terrorist.
Media observed: AP, AFP, Reuters, CNN, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Boston Globe, The Times, The Independent, BBC, International Herald Tribune, The Scotsman.
The international media relied exclusively on Israeli sources, or large news agencies (Reuters, AP, AFP etc.). The (understandable) initial Israeli frenzy obviously affected the first reports, where the different emphases are of an interest to us.
AFP reminds us of "the alleged links between Islamic militants in the Middle East and the so-called "mujahedeen" fighting Kremlin forces", but also mentions the distancing press release of Maskhadov stating that the hijacking "was against the separatists’ pledge not to target civilians." AFP later quotes an Israeli official as saying that the hijacking appears to be linked to internal Chechen affairs, but at no point clearly takes a stand as to determining the identity of the "unbalanced individual" leaving henceforth open the possibility that Chechen nationals might be involved.
AP’s first reports, based on the Israeli sources, mention Chechen hijackers who acted "in support of the Palestinian uprising." This was later changed to the hijacking being a part of the "ongoing dispute between Russia and Chechnya, which is predominantly Muslim." The mention of the dominant religion leads one to assume that AP thinks that it is self-evident and natural that Russia and a country that is "predominantly Muslim" should be involved in ongoing disputes. On current developments in Chechnya AP comments that "Russian forces have recaptured Chechnya, but rebels continue to wage deadly hit-and-run attacks on the Russian troops." (The adjectives "peace-bringing and friendly" seem to be missing before "Russian".) This wording was adopted by various international media sources.
AP later changed to "an apparently deranged" Chechen with a fake bomb, and on Monday to a man who "was identified by Israeli officials as a Chechen but by officials in Dagestan as a resident of the republic." It is obviously difficult for AP reporters to exclude the possibility that the hijacker was of Chechen nationality.
Reuters reported similarly on the identity of the hijacker(s) adding a statement by a Russian embassy official that the number and nationality of the hijackers remained a mystery after the refueling stop in Baku.
Los Angeles Times did not only say who hijacked the plane (apparently two pro-Palestinian Chechen Muslims) but also why they did it (the Russian military is attempting to suppress an independence revolt by Islamic nationalists).
BBC reported on Monday that the plane was hijacked by a "lone hijacker, who the Israeli army describes as an ‘unbalanced’ man in his 20’s from the Russian Caucasus."
The Boston Globe told on Monday the story of a "xenophobic Russian described as ‘not exactly sane’" and states that the idea that the plane had been commandeered by four Chechen Muslims in solidarity with Palestinians fighting Israel was brought up by Russian authorities after their assessment of the situation during the layover in Baku.
The Scotsman reminded its readers that the first reports about the identity of the hijacker stated that he was an Islamic militant, Zadair Guseynov, known for his extended criminal record.
Other observed media, not mentioned in the article, relied on the same sources without expressing significantly different opinions. Most of the media seems to have taken the fact for granted that whenever anything unusual or violent happens in the Russian Caucasus (let us recall the recent "hostage taking" in Sochi on September 21) "Chechen Muslim Fundamentalist" are most likely to be involved. Some of the media even go as far as to supplement their articles with unconcerned and simplified comments on the situation in Chechnya. This sensationalistic irresponsibility of the world opinion makers can be dangerous. Let us think back on the apartment bombings in Buynaksk and Moscow, where the culprits have still never been discovered. The horrible damages, however, served as a pretext for the invasion of Chechnya supported by a well "formed" public opinion and consequently lead to the demolition of Chechnya and the deaths of thousands of Chechen civilians and Russian soldiers. Any wasted life is a great shame and thus one should be extremely careful before labeling a person with a crime. Labeling a whole nation can only be for the worse.
P.S. On November 12, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria published the following statement (On the Dagestani airplane hijacking):
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the ChRI declares that the Dagestani airplane hijacking has no connection whatsoever to the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. The Ministry states that no Chechen national was involved in the incident. We regret that Israel's military and the media around the world has misstated the facts about the incident. We note that the allegations of “the Chechen connection” in the hijacking are totally unreasonable. We remind that Dagestani's prosecutor office confirmed today that no Chechen national was on the plane. We again would like to remind that the Chechen Armed Forces do not target civilians. The Government of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria condemns terrorism in all forms and kinds.
Compiled by Prague Watchdog