Press Freedom Another Casualty in Chechnya

MOSCOW – A year after elections, little promise is in sight for the development of free and independent media in the autonomous republic of Chechnya.

The republic under President Alu Alkhanov continues to suppress the few remaining opposition media, while any new ones are prevented from coming up.

"The media are severely hampered, not only by the lack of infrastructure but by a number of factors stemming from the climate of fear that reigns in the republic," executive member of the International Federation for Human Rights Tatyana Lokshina told IPS by e-mail.

"The problems of the Chechen media vividly reflect problems that to an increasing degree have marked Russian media in general, where most electronic and print media are firmly controlled by the authorities, and independent journalists have been harassed, threatened, and killed."

A journalist working for a state media agency put it like this: "The state policy dictates reporting, just as in the time of [former elected President Aslan] Maskhadov. Today we’re allowed to report critically on various social issues, but we must avoid the ‘ugly issues.’" By "ugly issues" she meant human rights abuses, corruption, and the problem of impunity.

Representatives of non-state media say businessmen who own the media have also followed this line. Private owners and sponsors do not challenge the authorities directly. Staff at three of the four private media in Chechnya indicated that owners influenced the editorial line.

Many media representatives report a substantial degree of self-censorship as a consequence of internal pressure (from editors or owners) and external pressure such as fear of the authorities and security forces. They say there is widespread reluctance to report state officials’ association with crimes, for fear of repercussions against the concerned media and individual reporters.

"The problem is that the courts and prosecutor’s offices will not respond to any complaints from us," a newspaper editor said.

Several journalists say they try to write between the lines while reporting on issues that are seen as too dangerous or off-limits, such as corruption. They concede that for the most part they do not touch the "ugly issues."

An editor with state television said her journalists were threatened by armed men in camouflage uniform, presumably state security servicemen, when they tried to report illicit appropriation of building materials from houses damaged during the bombing of Grozny in 1999 and 2000. Asked if such threats persist, she said only that "today there are no more bricks left to steal."

The independent weekly Chechenskoe Obchestvo (Chechen Society) continues to face problems. Last year it received an official warning for its reporting on the assassination of former Chechen president Zelimkhan Yandarbieyev. The editor was repeatedly called in for questioning by the police units in charge of fighting organized crime.

Timur Aliev was told by officials that they regarded his newspaper as "anti-government." They asked him to suspend printing of the newspaper, which is now only available electronically.

"In the northern Caucasus, one can see in Chechnya the most extreme level of censorship – and the biggest number of newspapers," Grigory Shvedov, chief editor of the online daily Caucasian Knot told IPS. "There is no such thing as freedom of press in the region, that’s why such a great role is being played by the independent newspaper Chechen Society and its editor Timur Aliev."

Media operators say the lack of an effective distribution network has impeded the development of a real media market in the republic. Even the most widely read of the non-state local papers have a circulation of less than 5,000, and are dependent on sponsors or grants in order to survive. Other reasons for the small circulation are poverty and migration, both consequences of a decade-long war.

Amnesty International researchers say there are media outlets within Chechnya that are able to provide their own perspective on events, and so it is not true that there is a total information blockade.

"But for those seeking to report on events in the region there are multiple difficulties," Amnesty’s Europe and Central Asian program researcher Victoria Webb told IPS. "The danger of being caught up in the violence, from being in the wrong place at the wrong time, difficulties in accessing some remote areas and also difficulties in persuading ordinary people that it is worth speaking to them about their experiences or what they have witnessed."

Stanislav Dmitrievskiy and Oksana Chelysheva from the Russian Chechen Information Agency and members of the Russian Chechen Friendship Society have both received death threats. Stanislav was convicted this year of engaging in "extremist activity" and given a two-year suspended sentence for publishing articles by Chechen leaders calling for a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

The agency has also been subjected to apparently intimidating checks by the tax authorities and the Ministry of Justice – a common repressive tactic in Russia and former Soviet countries.

Anna Politkovskaia, journalist with the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, has also faced threats for her reporting on Chechnya. Last month, Amnesty International issued an urgent appeal following the "disappearance" of reporter Elina Ersenoyeva.

In Moscow, some do see freedom of the media in Chechnya, but a different kind of freedom.

"Today, it is possible to assert that media freedom in Chechnya exists," Yelena Zelinskaya, vice-president of the company Media Soyuz and member of the Russian public chamber, told IPS. "Freedom of expression in Chechnya can be described as very different from the Russian standard, even as a whole from many European countries."

The media in Chechnya, she said, strives for objectivity and also aims for basic truth, which is directed toward changing society positively after the devastation.

"And it is necessary to recognize the appearance of critical publications and attempts to disseminate findings in the Chechnya community and from the side of the authority – by this many problems would subsequently be solved."

Read more by Kester Kenn Klomegah