Paris-based Reporters Without Borders has called Chechnya’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov “a predator of press freedom”. The US NGO Freedom House has listed him among the “worst of the worst”.
Kadyrov followed his father into the president’s office and last month celebrated his tenth year in power in the Chechen Republic. The political rise came after they abandoned the idea of Chechen independence – over which two brutal wars were fought in the 1990s – and made a deal with Moscow and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Since then the capital Grozny has been rebuilt with some shiny new towers. But a free press no longer exists, and the few journalists still reporting on human rights abuses in Chechnya do so at their own peril – at least two have paid for their work with their lives.
The current Chechen regime has a long history of liquidating its critics… It has built a reputation that it is willing to solve all problems with violence.
Many more would-be critics have been forced to flee the region or have just disappeared.
The Listening Post’s Johanna Hoes reports on the challenges journalists face when reporting on Chechnya under Ramzan Kadyrov.
Over the past two years, Chechens have witnessed a series of disturbing spectacles unfold on their state television channel, Grozny TV.
Ordinary Chechens accused of insulting the state and its leaders online are made to apologise live on air to Kadyrov.
“Everyone knows the case of Adam Dikaev, the young man who dared to make jokes about government propaganda, who was made to apologise on camera in his underwear,” says Oleg Orlov, chairman of the Memorial Human Rights Center.
“In another case, a woman posted criticism against Kadyrov on social media. She and her husband were taken to the Grozny TV studio where they were humiliated and had to ask Ramzan Kadyrov for forgiveness,” Orlov adds.
Humiliating people in public is the government’s way of silencing dissent.
“They want to ensure they are always depicted positively,” notes Elena Milashina, Caucasus correspondent of the Novaya Gazeta. “You have to write about the authorities as you would about the departed – either good or nothing at all.”
The internet is one of the few remaining places where Chechens can voice any dissatisfaction with the state. Internet access hasn’t been completely shut off and social media is relatively accessible – possibly because blocking Twitter and Instagram would deprive Kadyrov, who posts regularly on both sites.
However, increasingly even the internet has been squeezed. And for Chechen audiences, there are precious few outlets or platforms for alternative narratives.
“The treatment of Kadyrov in the local media is very similar to the treatment of Putin in the Russian national media. If he says something, that is the news. And if he doesn’t say something, well there isn’t much going on,” says journalist Oliver Bullough.
Kadyrov does lots of things that journalists love, such as hanging out with Hollywood stars, but underneath that, “in terms of actual day-to-day journalism, he’s been catastrophic”, says Bullough.
“The government is keen to present anyone who is critical of the government as an enemy. If you are a Chechen and you try to work as an independent journalist, you will be warned off, and if you continue you will be hurt. And if you continue you’ll be killed,” he adds.
Chechen journalists promote the government’s propaganda.
Interestingly, the last outpost of critical journalists has become Russia. The Moscow-based newspaper Novaya Gazeta and a website called Caucasian Knot are two of the few news outlets still reporting abuses in Chechnya.
They do this work at considerable risk.
In 2006, Novaya Gazeta’s prominent Chechnya reporter Anna Politkovskaya was shot dead at her home in Moscow, reportedly on the orders of Chechen authorities.
Three years later, her colleague Natalia Estemirova who wrote extensively on Chechen human rights abuses was kidnapped in Grozny and murdered.
Last year, a journalist working for Caucasian Knot, Zhalavdi Geriyev, was kidnapped, tortured, and forced to sign a confession on drug charges, and sentenced to three years in a Chechen prison.
This crackdown on press freedom has resulted in Russian journalists “practicing self-censorship on issues related to Chechnya”, says Gregory Shevdov, editor at the Caucasian Knot.
Acknowledging the regime’s penchant for silencing its critics, “it is not completely effective”, says Elena Milashina, north Caucasus reporter at Novaya Gazeta.
“It doesn’t stop all non-Chechen journalists from writing on Chechnya. We at Novaya Gazeta and colleagues at Caucasian Knot continue to cover abuses in Chechnya, and it makes the authorities there really angry, especially since we have a lot of journalistic credibility,” she says.
Chechnya has hundreds of news stories going untold, and Ramzan Kadyrov is making sure it stays that way.
Oleg Orlov, chairman, Memorial Human Rights Organisation
Oliver Bullough, journalist
Gregory Shvedov, editor, Caucasian Knot
Elena Milashina, Caucasus correspondent, Novaya Gazeta
Source: Al Jazeera