Local journalists in Chechnya face the same problems as journalists do throughout the world—the difficulties of getting and distributing objective information. The only difference is that the risks that journalists confront in Chechnya increase the problems exponentially. It is extremely hard to persuade government officials in Chechnya to disclose facts that might not even discredit them but might just “cast a shadow” on their reputations. Considering that many of these people had to pay a hefty sum to get their jobs, they are simply not willing to risk it.
The same happens with ordinary people. Even the relatives of those who disappeared without a trace or were arrested during “clean-up” operations by Russian or Chechen security forces are not always prepared to talk openly about it. Sometimes they tell the facts but ask not to be named. They are not always afraid for themselves. Sometimes their silence is caused by concern for their missing relatives. What if this information harms instead of helps them, they reason. For instance, the elder brother of Ali Astamirov, a correspondent for Agence France-Presse news agency who was kidnapped in Ingushetia, told me, “It’s best not to make a fuss ….”
Chechens use strange double standards when talking to journalists. Sometimes people are more willing to speak to correspondents working for foreign media than to local ones. Apparently they believe that if their information is published in the West it will be more effective. Or perhaps they think that it will not be read in Chechnya and Russia and that these interviews are safer for their personal security.
Reporting in Chechnya
On October 5, 2003, Chechnya held its “presidential elections.” Everyone knew the result in advance—the Kremlin’s man, Akhmad Kadyrov, would be elected with a vast majority. Looking for independent observers monitoring the republic’s polling stations, I walked into the office of Chechnya’s official human rights commissioner, Abdul-Khakim Sultygov. Before the elections, people who work there had told me that they would be doing the monitoring. Now several human rights defenders were sitting in the office, including Zura Abdulkhajieva, who chairs a women’s public organization. I asked her: “Did you vote, Zura?” “Yes, of course, I voted for Kadyrov—he is doing a lot for our republic, and he promised to sort out the nighttime abductions. For the women of Chechnya he will be the best president,” she replied.
About 15 minutes later Zura realized that the story that I was writing was going to be published in the West. She pulled me by the sleeve and said, “Timur, don’t write that I voted for Kadyrov. The truth is I didn’t go to vote at all.”
This double personality is typical of Chechens. If this is how representatives of human rights organizations, who normally try to speak out as often and critically as possible, reply to a journalist’s questions, then it’s no surprise when state officials shun journalists, usually just repeating what they say in official press releases.
A while ago, even obtaining local official information was very difficult. Local journalists found it extremely hard to get accredited with the government or even get a pass to enter government buildings. A paradoxical situation developed in which correspondents for the republic state news agency, Grozny-Inform, learned about government news and official decrees from reports on ITAR-TASS, the government news agency in Moscow, which they fished off the Internet.
The press situation in Chechnya is even more problematic. There are three categories of media in the republic through which a journalist can reach the Chechen audience—state, separatist and independent publications.
State-Run and Separatist Press
The most numerous group is state (pro-Moscow) newspapers. Chechnya has three republic-wide publications, and almost every province of the country has its newspapers—presently, there are 10 of them. They have high circulations—from 3,000 to 7,000 copies—and are supported by state funding. Their professional level is very poor. Being directly dependent on the state, these publications naturally have a distinct pro-government orientation. Any attempt to report a fact that discredits the republic’s leaders will land the editor in trouble. The very least he or she can expect in this case is a verbal reprimand during a weekly editorial meeting at the local press ministry; at worst, the editor could be sacked or prosecuted.
Naturally, editorial policy is determined by their editors’ interest in their own careers and is directed, primarily, at preventing any opposition material from being published. Outside the official context, they see themselves as free-thinking persons who are disturbed by every human rights violation in their republic and shrug their shoulders at me, saying you understand full well that we cannot publish such information. Often they pass on material to independent media.
Though it seems strange to say, most Chechen journalists are not desperate to be objective. This sounds curious, but in a region where human rights are violated on an hourly basis and on which the whole international human rights and journalistic community focuses its attention, local journalists frequently say they see no problems to report on.
The situation has changed dramatically. During the initial wave of enthusiasm over Glasnost and freedom of speech in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, journalists in the republic were raising previously forbidden issues including, most prominently, the issue of national self-determination for the Chechen people. And journalists could write and talk openly and broadly. But after war broke out in 1994, journalism became increasingly vague. Since 1995, strong pressure from the authorities (any kind of authorities—pro-Russian as well as pro-independence) and the presence of armed men (again, either Russians or militants) has shaped the journalistic response.
For instance, investigative journalism has effectively disappeared as a genre. Attempts to revive it or, at least, use its elements in reporting, could have sad consequences for an author. Journalists began to use pseudonyms increasingly often, although it is virtually impossible to conceal one’s authorship of a story in such a small republic. Articles began to avoid mentioning names of people involved. Even initials were not included, and bylines were vague, such as “a resident of the Gekhi village” or “a student at the oil institute.”
The main features of Chechen official journalism today are an anodyne language in articles, a lack of critical issues raised, a tendency to “smooth over” difficult topics and make cautious analysis. This position, naturally, was not arrived at voluntarily.
In many ways there has not been much difference between the way the press was treated when Chechnya was de facto independent between 1997 and 1999 and since 2000, when Russia returned in force to the region. The authorities used administrative and legal methods to keep members of the press in line, and men with guns used threat, intimidation and violence. Now the situation is much the same. The official media of the Kadyrov government continues to hold openly pro-governmental views (which are now pro-Russian), adopt a neutral, though more negative than positive attitude towards the Russian forces, and to treat the political opponent of the new authorities (i.e. pro-independence rebels) extremely negatively.
State media journalists in Chechnya practice a sort of internal self-censorship, which does not allow them to overstep the permitted mark in their publications. This seems paradoxical. Today, at the time of war, there is no conflict between the authorities and press in Chechnya, and cases of violation of journalists’ rights are rare. Mind you, all this is 100 percent true only for the state-run press.
Separatist or rebel newspapers are publications that are produced and distributed clandestinely. They are printed with the money provided by the leaders of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, Aslan Maskhadov and Shamil Basayev, and distributed privately, from person to person. They are of low professional and technical quality but attract readers by their manifestly anti-Russian orientation and their brave but propagandistic terminology: Federal troops are called “invaders” and “aggressors” and Kadyrov supporters “traitors.” Yet this use of propaganda and distortion of facts also alienates readers. At the moment, this is rather academic, since for several months now these pro-independence publications have not been coming out. These newspapers are not serious journalistic publications, since they generally print digests of human rights organizations’ press releases that had been reworded using Ichkerian terminology, as well as materials taken from separatist Web sites on the Internet.
Independent Press in Chechnya
The republic’s four independent newspapers are the most active forum for free journalistic expression in Chechnya. Because they are not beholden to any political forces, these four publications are truly independent and not oppositional. However, they do not always have financial support, so the independent press directly depends on readers’ demand and tries to keep their audiences interested the best they can, but without practicing “yellow journalism.” The independent newspapers are well designed and have professional reporters on staff.
Unfortunately, only two of those newspapers dare to cover political aspects of life in the republic—Chechenskoe Obshchestvo (Chechen Society) and Golos Chechenskoi Respubliki (Voice of the Chechen Republic). As a result of their independent views, which means that they do not support either the Ichkerian side or the Kadyrov government and Moscow federal government, these newspapers are vulnerable to attack from all sides.
As the editor of Chechenskoe Obshchestvo, I’ve experienced this vulnerability. In late February, a list naming 170 national traitors was distributed in Chechnya. My name is on this list. An introduction to the list alleged that each of us is a traitor of the Ichkerian nation and GRU (military intelligence) agents. Furthermore, it said all the people on the list would be definitely eliminated. The document also included the names of all editors of state media in Chechnya, leaders of the republic, and employees of military and law enforcement bodies as traitors to be destroyed. It was signed “Sword of Ichkeria.”
My newspaper has also received complaints from the government. In late April, the territorial administration of the Ministry of Press of the Russian Federation in Chechnya issued a stern warning to our editorial office, accusing us of violating the Russian media law. The warning came after the newspaper published an article titled “Leaflets with Yandarbiev’s obituary distributed in Chechnya” in its issue No. six on March 23, 2004 about the former rebel leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiev, who was assassinated in Qatar in February (two Russians are on trial for his murder, allegedly ordered from Moscow).
According to Ismail Munaev, the head of territorial administration of the press ministry in Chechnya, my newspaper had “in effect published a whole series of provocative appeals and extremist declarations under the mask of a news report.” By “provocative appeals” the administration meant the quoting of several phrases from the leaflet in the article. Munaev said this could not be justified by editorial qualifications such as “… the leaflet said” or “… it is noted in the obituary.”
Of course, a warning is not so dangerous by itself, but three warnings are enough to shut a newspaper down. However, the affair did not end with a mere warning, and the territorial administration filed a request that the Chechnya prosecutor’s office open a case against me.
Sometimes when my old friends and also readers of our newspaper run into me in the street they ask me jokingly, “Why are you still alive?” I used to retort with a joke as well: “Kadyrov has no time to deal with us right now—he’s got elections to think of. Besides, he needs us to create an illusion of an opposition.” But now the elections are over, and perhaps the time has come for the authorities to make their “debtors” pay up.
Timur Aliev is editor of Chechenskoe Obshchestvo newspaper and Chechnya coordinator for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR). Natasha Chernyshova, who is IWPR’s Russian translater in London, translated this article, which was written before President Akhmad Kadyrov was murdered.