MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia summoned Washington”s envoy on Friday to protest a U.S. television network”s airing of an interview with a Chechen rebel leader that threatened to add to strains between the two countries.
In the interview, broadcast by ABC on Thursday night, warlord Shamil Basayev accused Russia of killing thousands of civilians and defended his own raids — the bloodiest of the 10-year Chechen war — as part of a struggle for independence.
"We invited the deputy chief of mission to express our views over the broadcasting of an interview with a terrorist. … We expressed our strong indignation," a Foreign Ministry spokesman said.
"The TV channel has shown outrageous neglect of the standards of responsible journalism and general human values."
The United States condemned Basayev as a terrorist but said it could not dictate what interviews U.S. networks aired.
"This is a constitutional right of an American media outlet to broadcast an interview, and we did not have any role to play in the decision to air the interview," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters.
Washington has criticized some Arab media for interviews with militants and, after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, asked U.S. networks to consider whether statements by al Qaeda leaders contained hidden messages before broadcasting them.
"Freedom of speech is never an issue when a popular person expresses an acceptable point of view," said ABC Nightline news program host Ted Koppel, on Thursday after the interview.
"It is of real value only because it guarantees us access to the unpopular espousing the unacceptable. Then we can reject or accept it, condemn it or embrace it. No one should have the authority to make that decision for us. Not our own government, and certainly not somebody else”s," added Koppel.
Basayev organized the attack on a school in Beslan in September, when 330 hostages — more than half of them children — died after a three-day siege.
The warlord, who has spearheaded Chechen resistance for a decade and has a $10 million price on his head, has also sent hostage-takers and suicide bombers into Moscow and other Russian towns in operations that have killed hundreds.
Russia accuses him of links to al Qaeda and says the Chechen war is part of the global struggle against terrorism.
It is quick to criticize any Western sympathy for the Chechen cause as proof of "double standards" in the fight, and has previously slammed the United States and Britain for refusing to extradite rebels.
"These notorious double standards and double approaches continue to exist. … Undoubtedly, this sours our cooperation (with the United States) and gives a boost to terrorist activists," Anatoly Safonov, President Vladimir Putin”s special representative for the war against terrorism, told Interfax news agency.
"This is the reaction not just of the Foreign Ministry but of any Russian citizen. Not long ago, our American colleagues asked why there was so much anti-Americanism in the Russian press. These publications are the reactions of our people, who have suffered such losses in Beslan and in Moscow."
Earlier this year, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made unusually pointed criticism of Russian democracy, saying the Kremlin had too strong a grip on power and blocked a free press.
Basayev happily admitted he was a terrorist in the ABC interview, but said the Russians were worse. "If they are the keepers of constitutional order, if they are anti-terrorists then I spit on all these agreements and nice words," he said.
The ministry summoned Deputy Chief of Mission Daniel Russell. There is currently no U.S. ambassador in Moscow because former envoy Alexander Vershbow has only just left his post. (Additional reporting by Saul Hudson in Washington)