Violations of journalists' rights in Chechnya - March 2003
Monitoring press violations and conflicts connected to media coverage of events in the Chechen Republic in March 2003
Compiled by the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations. Translated by Prague Watchdog.
1. Media problems during the referendum campaign
The news agency Chechenpress, which favors the Chechen separatists, released Aslan Maskhadov´s address to the Chechen nation. In his statement Maskhadov said: "By initiating a referendum on the new constitution under conditions of war, the Russian leadership aims to undermine the government of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria." He called on citizens of the republic to "become united in this difficult period and make it clear that there is no alternative to an independent state for Chechens. "
The Chechen Minister of the Press, Broadcasting and Communication, Bislan Gantamirov, said that during the preparation for the referendum, the republic’s media printed 195,000 copies of the draft constitution and 175,000 of the draft laws on the presidential and parliamentary elections. According to him, all the newspapers devoted their space to the referendum. Gantamirov added that as far as the electronic media is concerned, two channels of the State Televion and Radio Broadcasting Company GTRK, which cover 85% of Chechnya, provide the broadcasts.
Gantamirov also criticized several media, namely the Marsho newspaper and the Grozny Television and Radio Broadcasting Company. Gantamirov admonished Said Khozhaliyev, the editor-in-chief of Marsho, which has since the beginning of the year published 49 issues containing agitation material for the referendum. In Gantamirov’s opinion, a newspaper should not resemble an agitation noticeboard. As regards the Grozny television company, Gantamirov expressed wish to see “more positive news being broadcast”. At the same time, Gantamirov praised “Stolitsa-plyus” and “Molodyozhnaya smena” for good work.
The booklet "Chechnya: Questions and Answers," put together by the official news agency RIA Novosti, was introduced in Moscow. According to the President’s aide on Chechnya Sergei Yastrzhembsky, the book provides answers to questions that appeared in the media about the Chechen issue. The booklet was published in English, German, French, Spanish and Arabic. It includes information on the first and second election campaigns, as well as the present government officials in the Chechen Republic, reconstruction work and reconstruction of law enforcement agencies.
Some Russian media noted that many answers given in the booklet seem either to be controversial or inaccurate. Nor does it include a single photograph of destroyed buildings in Grozny, which prompted Yastrzhembsky to remark: "You’re saying that there are no such photographs. And I’m saying that you are lying!"
The Office of the Russian Presidential Envoy to the Southern Federal Region Viktor Kazantsev established a Coordinating Information Committee. One of its main tasks will be to "assist in disseminating objective information on the process in Chechnya as well as beyond its borders." The envoy pointed to the lack of information regarding the necessity for a plebiscite.
Edi Isayev, director of the press service of the Office of the Plenipotentiary of the Chechen Republic to Russian President, said that the Chechen resistance fighters' campaign against the referendum is intensifying. According to him, leaflets are being disseminated in Chechen towns and villages on behalf of Ichkeria´s government calling on people to boycott the referendum and organize mass protest rallies. The same day the regional task force headquarters which manages the counter-terrorist actions in the Northern Caucasus also said that "Chechen resistance fighters were campaigning to get enough people to Grozny on March 21 to protest the referendum."
The head of the initiative group on the referendum, Khasan Taymaskhanov, said that the group will place more than 10,000 different posters in Chechen towns and villages. And the booklets on the draft Constitution and draft laws on the presidential and parliamentary election that had been circulated have just about ended. According to Taymaskhanov, more than one million copies of the booklets had been distributed.
Nikolay Payzulayev, press secretary of the Chechen regional branch of the Yedinaya Rosiya party, said that more than 30 campaign billboards calling on people to take part in the polls were destroyed in Grozny’s Leninsky district. He added, however, that new billboards would soon replace the demolished ones.
Visami Tutuyev, CEO of the Kavkaz-Centr news agency, which reflects the position of most radical Chechen separatists, has accused the Russian Internet publication Grani.Ru of lying. The news agency had earlier published the ruling of the Supreme Shariat Court of the Chechen Republic which stated that all organizers of the referendum would be sentenced to death. Tutuyev was outraged by the Grani.Ru journalist Ilya Milshteyn, who assessed the decision as a sentence for "everyone who campaigned for the referendum as well as all those who took part in it."
Chechen TV carried President Vladimir Putin’s address to Chechen citizens on the upcoming referendum. The television station decided to air the address again on March 17. However, everyone at the Russian military base in Khankala who wanted to watch the rerun met with an unsolvable problem-----all TV screens suddenly went blank and nothing could be seen for twenty minutes.
According to Chechen separatist sources, Aslan Maskhadov appeared on Chechen TV saying "the so-called referendum is an illegal action carried out by the occupiers and will have no legal binding consequences on the Chechen state." His broadcast was seen in several villages of the Achkhoi-Martanovsky and Urus-Martanovsky districts.
The military command in Chechnya has once again reported that "rebels have mobilized their propaganda activities and plan to organize rallies against the referendum."
Sergei Yastrzhembsky, President Putin’s Aide on Chechnya, said that 140 foreign journalists have been accredited to observe and explain the course of the referendum. According to him, no entry limits or quota were imposed for Chechnya.
A press conference with Chechen journalist Kheda Saratova, and Anna Politkovska of the Novaya Gazeta, along with a specialist in international tribunals, Vladimir Oyvin, was held in Moscow entitled "Chechnya: Referendum, Tribunal and Feasibility."
The constitutional referendum was held in Chechnya and according to official reports, more than 100 foreign journalists observed it. Heads of Chechen NGOs reported that alongside one of the polling booths, journalists from the TVS television company asked human rights activist Ruslan Badalov to answer a few of their questions. But within seconds, Chechen Deputy Interior Minister Khizir Tepsayev approached and demanded that they stop filming. He made it clear that they had no right to film anything next to the polling booth and demanded to see their accreditation; but the journalists´ objections, as well as Badalov´s, infuriated him. Meanwhile, Nalgiyev from the Ingush Prosecutor’s Office came along and threatened to arrest Badalov and the journalists.
Later that day, members of the Federal Security Service arrested a journalist standing next to one of the polling booths who claimed to work for a Moscow newspaper. When searched, explosives were found in his bag.
A press conference with Salambek Maigov, Aslan Maskhadov´s envoy to Russia, was held in Moscow where he stated, "the referendum cannot be considered to be legal." He explained that the situation in Chechnya was exceptional----there is limited mobility, limited right to receive and disseminate information (the accreditation system significantly limits the media), and rallies, street marches and demonstrations are banned. According to Maigov, practically all media within the republic work under harsh censorship; nor can any opinions that differ from official views of the Chechen administration be published. He pointed out that adversaries of the referendum and the constitution had no way of launching a legal campaign and explaining their position to the people.
In Vienna, the International Helsinki Federation on Human Rights published a document devoted to the referendum in Chechnya, which was based on information from local human rights groups. They concluded that the process of drafting the constitution and organizing a referendum represented almost the worst case of unlawful activities and manipulating a nation’s free expression in the polls in the post-Soviet period. The document quotes a report worked out by the Memorial human rights group, according to which "necessary conditions were not created for a free and fair referendum which would guarantee security and allow the public to assess the draft constitution."
A few advance copies of Vesti Respubliky were published in Chechnya, which included the text of the Constitution and laws on the presidential and parliamentary elections adopted in the March 23 referendum. The Chechen Deputy Mininster of the Press, Broadcasting and Communication, Liza Takasheva, said that only about 10 copies of the paper were initially printed; the delay was due to an error that was made in the advance issues----one of the articles of the constitution had been incorrectly numbered. On April 1, the republic’s newspapers doubled the number of copies they usually print, which also carried the same text as Vesti Respubliky.
2. Media rights violations
After a three-week hiatus, local newspapers again appeared in Chechnya. The state printing company, Nadterechnaya tipografiya, stopped printing because they had no funds to purchase basic materials. Director Vakha Idrisov announced that the needed sums have now been transferred into the company´s account and they were again able to buy supplies.
The University at Reading in Great Britain hosted a meeting of local students and various dignitaries to discuss “Chechnya, Russia, and International Terrorism.“ Among the people attending were: Akhmed Zakayev, Aslan Maskhadov´s representative, former Russian Parliamentary Speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov, executive director of the U.S. “American Committee for Peace in Chechnya“ Glen Howard, Russian human rights activist MP Yuly Rybakov, former Russian dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, English actress and activist Vanessa Redgrave, former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko, Chechen lawyer Abdullah Khamzayev, and Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya.
The Russian daily Moskovskie Novosti published an interview with the well-known German journalist Guenter Walraff, whom Russian authorities had denied entry into Chechyna; but in March permission was granted. Walraff stated that in order to enter Chechnya, the Russian Embassy demanded to see an official invitation from Akhmad Kadyrov, head of the Moscow-backed administration of the Chechen Republic.
The University in Grozny opened an Internet Centre that can daily handle 1,000 people. Students can use the Internet for free. According to the centre’s organizers, free access to information is “the best defense against radical ideas.“
Head of the Moscow-backed Chechen administration Akhmad Kadyrov denied reports that his relatives were running a personal prison he had set up in his home village. Kadyrov stated these were baseless rumors. “My younger son is a commander of a special squad that fights bandits.“
The military headquarters in Chechnya announced that federal forces are searching for a mobile TV transmission unit used by guerillas to broadcast a program called Novosti Ichkerii. They stated that “leaders of the group continue these operations in order to gain information and psychological control over the local population.“
A book of Chechen and Ingushetian folk tales was launched in Moscow in the presence of Russian President’s aide on Chechnya Sergei Yastrzhembsky, and 30,000 copies were issued.
Aslanbek Dadayev, correspondent for the Chechen department of the Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, and Ali Astamirov of Agence France Press in North Caucasus, along with Reuters Adlan Khasanov were stopped by police in the Sleptsovskaya village in Ingushetia and forbidden to photograph refugees living in the camp. The journalists were told that in order to do this, they needed special permission from the Immigration Office.
After nearly a year, the independent socio-political newspaper Groznenskyi Rabochi appeared on the newstands again. The editor-in-chief is Musa Muradov.
A training-seminar for Chechen journalists, “Journalism in Regions of Conflict“ took place in Nazran. It was organized by a London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting. About twenty newspaper, radio and TV correspondents sat through lectures dealing with the basics of international journalism.
The Russian Museum of Photography in Nizhny Novgorod opened a photographic exhibit entitled “Chechnya: Our wounds, Our angst.“ It included the work of war photographers and frontline correspondents on the “counter-terrorist campaign“ in Northern Caucasus. According to the Russian Defense Ministry’s news agency “Voyeninform,“ these photographs “show the war as it actually is, omitting nothing.“ Yet the focus is very much on the “image of a Russian soldier.“
March 15 – 18
Imran Ezhiyev, head of the regional branch of the Society of Russian-Chechen Friendship, was abducted in Chechnya on the road between Shali and Serzhen-Yurt. Several armed, masked men stopped the car in which he was travelling and demanded to see his documents. Then at gunpoint, they transferred Ezhiyev into a car and drove off. Ezhiyev had been gathering information on the situation in Chechnya, and reporting daily to the Society’s office in Nizhny Novgorod.
Ezhiyev was released on March 18, saying his captors set him free near Khankala, Russia’s main military base in Chechnya. The rights defender had no idea whose hostage he was or where he had been held captive.
In Moscow, Mikhail Seslavinski, Russian Deputy Minister of the Press, announced that about 70 percent of Chechens have access to TV broadcasts. He said all programs could be seen on the Rossiya channel and some on the Kultura channel. And there are also daily broadcasts by Chechen State Radio and Television. According to Seslavinski, the first tender for radio and television frequencies in Grozny will take place in May.
Many Grozny citizens protested the recent activity of Russian television journalists that had taken place in the center of the city. Apparently several Russian journalists filmed a large crowd of people waiting at a bus stop that was then presented on a Russian TV news channel as a “mass protest against the impending war in Iraq.“ The people of Grozny complained about the “outrageous misrepresentation on the part of corrupt journalists.“
The Russian newspaper Novaya gazeta published an article by a Moscow
journalist who returned from Grozny, "In Russia, TV news is favourable ...
in Chechnya." The article states that the Chechen State Television and
Radio Company "broadcasts no bad news, only upbeat items. Journalists
themselves explain they are so fed up with all the bad things in their
lives that they want only good things and lasting values to appear on TV
screens. However, the expression on their faces suggests they had
received strict orders from Moscow not to air anything that would compromise
Russians." Always accompanying the correspondent, camera operator and
one or two men with sub-machine guns, the paper noted.
A large number of Russian politicians, public figures, and journalists signed a “Let‘s Stop the Chechen War Together“ declaration. This document states that the deaths of thousands of Russian soldiers and officers, tens of thousands of civilians, and destruction of the entire country cannot be justified by either the interests of the state or by threats of world terrorism. It also demanded that the Russian government “stop barbaric raids, summary executions, and all senseless means of punishment that only serve to recruit new partisans for the separatist movement.“
After nearly three years, the independent socio-political newspaper Golos Chechenskoi Respubliki, once again appeared on the newsstands. The editor-in-chief is Satsita Isayeva.
In Altai, work has begun on the “Memorial Book” dedicated to the soldiers who perished in Afghanistan and Chechnya.
Compiled by Ilya Maksakov. Based on material from the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, CJES expert on Chechnya and Ingushetia Tamerlan Aliyev; news agencies Interfax, ITAR-TASS, RIA Novosti, Prima; newpapers: Kommersant, Obshchaya Gazeta, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Komsomolskaya Pravda, Novaya Gazeta; radio stations: Echo Moskvy and Svoboda; and Internet publications Strana.ru, Regiony.ru, Chechenpress, and Kavkazski Vestnik.