Russian human rights activist Lyudmila Alexeyeva visits the grave of her slain Chechen colleague Natalia Estemirova in August 2009. Photo by Musa Sadulayev/The Associated Press.

This story was done in collaboration with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Read brief descriptions of the journalists whose stories I am able to tell. More detailed profiles appear on the Pulitzer Center site.

“Everyone shall be guaranteed freedom of thought and speech … Censorship shall be prohibited.”

—Constitution of the Russian
Federation, Chapter 2, Article 29

Widely varying numbers tell a disturbing story about what’s happening to journalists and journalism in Russia, especially when someone in power finds their reporting offensive. First, look at the findings released last year by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), which reviewed the deaths of 313 Russian journalists from 1993 to 2009. IFJ determined that 86 journalists and media workers died in Russia because of their work while an additional 38 “may have been killed because of the work they did.” Yet Russia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs puts the number of journalists killed during the same period at 19.

The internal affairs ministry is an official source in Russia. The IFJ is an independent group of journalists that published the report, “Partial Justice: An Inquiry Into the Deaths of Journalists in Russia, 1993-2009.” In many ways the difference between the two sources in the number of journalists’ deaths exemplifies the reality of Russian life today: Everything official is constructed to favor the state.

The IFJ’s report is available as a PDF »Neither of these sources tells about the many journalists who, fearing for their lives, fled from Russia to seek safety and asylum in foreign lands. Some suggest that 40 journalists have gone into exile during the past decade. No one really knows, though I know a lot of reporters who, like me, decided to do that. Attacks on news organizations and journalists have increased dramatically, as have abductions. At the same time, criminal and civil prosecutions of reporters and editors have escalated.

Some journalists have been murdered in ways that resemble an execution. And the cruel response of high-ranking officials as they seek to marginalize the victims has convinced observers that these are not random murders. They are a publicly sanctioned punishment for reporters’ efforts to reveal the truth.

Even after journalists are dead, the attacks on them continue. Shortly after Anna Politkovskaya was assassinated in the elevator of her apartment building, Vladimir Putin, then president of Russia, called her an “insignificant” reporter. In reality, she was a courageous investigative reporter within Russia and a journalist whose stories from Chechnya gained international recognition. Soon after the abduction and murder of award-winning journalist Natalia Estemirova, Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov said she was “a woman with no morality.”

Most of the Russian journalists who have been targeted for death focused their reporting on the North Caucasus. There, as in Chechnya and St. Petersburg, no one who has killed a journalist (or media worker) was prosecuted between 1993 and 2007, and this region accounted for three of the five media-related deaths in Russia in 2008, according to the IFJ report.

For more than two decades, the people living there have endured violence resulting from separatist, ethnic and religious conflicts. People are killed or disappear on a daily basis, but because Russia has virtually closed this region to journalists, stories of these crimes are rarely told. Reporters who are not Russian citizens are required to obtain four to five types of accreditation from government officials, depending on where in the Caucasus they intend to go. Those who are Russian face intimidation if they ask questions that the government doesn’t want asked.

Of the few news media outlets in the North Caucasus, the vast majority are owned and operated by the state. By law, every TV station is a regional branch of Russia’s state-owned network and this means that government control is certain. Among the local newspapers in the Caucasus only four present any views that are in opposition to those of local government officials. Local businessmen own three of these four papers and the state security service there supports the other one. No criticism appears on their pages of either the federal government or its delivery of local services. These topics remain taboo for regional press anywhere in Russia.

Journalism is one of the poorest paid professions in the North Caucasus. The average salary for journalists who work in this region is $200 to $350 per month. At mainstream news organizations in Russia, average monthly income ranges from $5,000 to $7,000.

Only one news Web site in the North Caucasus is legally authorized. That site in Dagestan, charged with extremism, is now under criminal investigation. If people try to go to an unofficial Caucasus-based Web site, they will find on their screen the words “forbidden” or “prohibited” or the browser will redirect them to a pornography Web site.

Since 1998 all Internet providers in Russia have been required by law to install a monitoring system that gives the Federal Security Service (FSB) unlimited access to users’ profiles and allows filtering and remote control of Internet traffic from the headquarters of a special branch of the FSB. This Service of Special Communications and Information (SSCI) was formerly the 16th Directorate of KGB, and it reports directly to Putin, who once directed the FSB and is now prime minister of Russia.

With all of these eyes watching them, North Caucasus journalists who decide to work independently find that reporting becomes a life-threatening pursuit. Word has gotten out about the murder or abduction of some reporters but the story of what happened to many others remains untold as they became targets of official and unofficial harassment and intimidation.

Most local journalists hide their identity—writing under pseudonyms, as I have—when they report for foreign or independent Russian media. Usually they simply play the role of a source in passing along information and turning over the results of their investigations to colleagues who don’t face the same threats. Of course in doing this, they don’t reap the professional rewards of their investigative work.

With SSCI’s control over all types of communications in the Caucasus, the use of a pseudonym affords only limited protection. In time, the identity of most journalists is discovered. From that point on, that reporter’s life changes dramatically. Some of them leave journalism. Some alter their reporting styles while changing their pseudonym. Some flee the country. Others die.

Telling Their Stories—and Mine

For this project, I returned to the Caucasus early this year and traveled in Europe to meet with journalists who had fled the region. Like so many of them, I, my children, and my extended family left after deadly threats against me took on a level of seriousness that forced me to abandon my home and come to live in the United States. I undertook this journey so that I could talk with other journalists who fled Russia seeking political asylum in Europe or the United States. What they shared with me is chilling testimony to the repression of the press in today’s Russia. They also told me about the stories they were reporting, and these accounts provide a roadmap to help us see what the government is afraid to have known.

The stories of my friends and colleagues, Magomed Evloyev and Natalia Estemirova, each of whom was murdered for their work as journalists, represent the apotheosis of brutal censorship in Russia. After the state used all kinds of power against them and still failed to silence their voices, assassination became the ultimate solution.

When I told people about my desire to do this project, they used words like “insane” and “crazy” to try to persuade me not to go. While I appreciated that their concern for my safety was foremost in their thoughts, no one could persuade me that the risk I might be taking wasn’t worth the stories I would bring back with me.

For a decade I worked as a reporter in the North Caucasus, and I experienced the full range of what falls under the term “brutal censorship.” Three times I went to court in cases involving government officials accusing me of libel; I won each time. I investigated a civil case that was filed against me by the Ministry of Internal Affairs in which I was accused of illegally receiving a pension; the case was dismissed after I published my investigation in Novaya Gazeta. I have been arrested, even when no accusations were filed against me. I’ve been abducted, tortured and poisoned by the representatives of state services. In 1998 I was severely beaten and hospitalized for two months, yet those who did this to me were never identified. Groups of masked men searched my house and my parents’ house. I lived under constant surveillance; after a while I could distinguish which cars following me belonged to the FSB (formerly the KGB) and which belonged to the Russian police force. From 2004 to 2007, I was arrested and detained five times with no legal explanation. My actions were videotaped; what I said on my phone was recorded.

After two top government officials told me in confidence that my name was (and still is) on the list of those sentenced to death, I fled to the United States in 2007. I did this to save my life and my children.

During three years of living in my privileged exile, I received phone calls from friends and colleagues, telling me of their circumstances or about our peers who had been killed, had disappeared, or fled. I’ve devoted myself to helping journalists from this region by connecting them with immigration services and media advocacy groups. I’ve testified for those seeking asylum at the embassies in Europe and in the United States, and I’ve written articles in memory of those whom we have lost.

Yet I grew convinced that I needed to do more by bringing attention to how journalists struggle to report the news in the Caucasus. So in January and February—with the backing of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and Nieman Reports—I traveled to Europe to meet colleagues who were living in exile and hear their stories. For reasons related to their security, I will refrain from mentioning all the places where we met, and some journalists will be given pseudonyms. There are stories I wanted to tell but can’t at this time due to limited resources. Ingush journalist Alikhan Temurziev was eagerly waiting for me in a refugee camp in Eastern Europe, but I was not able to travel to meet with him.

Temurziev was one of Anna Politkovskaya’s guides in Chechnya. In a recent e-mail, he gave me permission to tell the story of his abduction by the FSB. When the FSB insisted that he pass on to Politkovskaya only the information that they permitted him to give, he refused to cooperate and he was tortured. Subsequently he was fired from his job, lost his ability to earn an income, and for almost a year lived in a refugee shelter in Ingushetia. As a result of torture, his health is not good. Now the Committee to Protect Journalists is supporting his case in the country where he has resettled.

On my return trip to the Caucasus, I started by collecting information about my murdered friends and colleagues, Estemirova and Evloyev. From the moment I set foot there, I was watched with great intensity. How absurd it must sound that working with legal documents I felt like a criminal and was dependent on friends and others to hide me, as needed. Friends helped me travel from place to place, and they rescued me when I was ambushed and chased. They also let me know whenever the FSB interrogated them to find out about my plans and travels.

Every detail of the trip was thought through. And yet I wasn’t able to protect those who helped me from being arrested and savagely interrogated even after I was gone. Among those who risked their lives to assist this project, there was never a suggestion that it was “insane” to attempt the work—a testament to how eager people in the North Caucasus are for a free press, just as they hunger for freedom and justice.

Fatima Tlisova, a 2009 Nieman Fellow, was an independent journalist for nearly a dozen years in the North Caucasus. She is now an online reporter for Voice of America’s Russian service. In May 2009, she received the Louis M. Lyons Award from the Nieman Foundation for her “courageous reporting in the face of severe intimidation and physical assaults.”

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