In January, two television journalists from ORT (Russia’s public television channel) were seized at gunpoint and held for a month until elections in Chechnya were over. The secrecy shrouding the bargaining between Russian and Chechen officials over the ORT correspondents sparked rumors that the capture was faked, or part of an elaborate effort by Chechen rebel factionsor Russian intelligence agents to scuttle the elections. ORT, which had suffered the shooting death of their North Caucasus Bureau Chief Ramzan Khadzhiev at a Russian military checkpoint in August 1996, withdraw all their personnel from the region and have yet to send replacements.
On February 23, Italian photographer Mauro Galligani, on assignment from the weekly Panorama, was seized by unidentified gunmen who pushed him into a car but allowed his colleagues free. The journalist is reportedly alive, according to a photograph, and his captors are demanding two million dollars in ransom. The Italian government is actively negotiating with regional officials. Regional observers fear that the willingness of an Italian humanitarian organization to pay the ransom for their workers kidnapped earlier in February set the stage for Galligani’s abduction.
The March 4 seizure of four Russian media employees — two correspondents from the official Russian wire service ITAR-TASS, one Radio Rossiya reporter, and a satellite technician – unleashed a tide of outrage from the Russian government, which had previously tended to prefer silent diplomacy about journalists disappeared in Chechnya. Following the March hostage drama of ITAR-TASS and NTV reporters in Tajikistan, negotiated to a safe close by presidential aide Vitaly Ignatenko, who also heads ITAR-TASS, the Grozny kidnapping was the largest group taken since Russian troops entered Grozny in December 1994. Perhaps because, for the first time, the journalists all worked for state-sponsored media outlets, or perhaps because it was the last straw, the Russian official outcry as well as vocal assurances by Chechen officials that they were doing all in their power, has been sustained at a high level for many weeks.
Generally, the consensus is that the recent rash of kidnappings are motivated by commercial gain rather than political grand-standing. “They take journalists because they are valuable and visible,” said one foreign correspondent in Moscow. An independent Russian journalist who now refrains from travel to Chechnya believes the affiliation with the Russian government isn’t relevant. “Reporters [like those from ITAR-TASS] who have to run around looking for a new story every day meeting lots of different people are more at risk.” Both Russian and foreign correspondents noted that if they stuck to their own network of trusted contacts, staying in private homes – even engaging their own armed driver/escorts – felt safer than those who stayed in the government’s hotels and hired unfamiliar drivers. Such past experience argued against complying with the rules, and many journalists now say they do not intend to obey them.
But journalists are also staying away from the region. For foreigners, the Chechen story ended after the elections, and their desks have lost interest. Russians who are naturally more interested in the story of Chechnya’s rebuilding don’t want to end up like their colleagues.
The capture of the four government media employees prompted the official Russian Union of Journalists to call for an “information blockade” of the war-torn republic. Even seasoned independent war reporters vowed to avoid coverage of Chechnya until their colleagues were released. Chechen officials retaliated on March 6 with an order for all journalists to leave the republic immediately, “in the interests of safety and for the promotion of the [peace] negotiations,” reported AP. Several days later, the Chechens relented, but established strict procedures for all reporters in the republic.
The news blackout, generally meant as a consciousness-raising device – dissipated in a few weeks. All the news media as well as government analysts rely heavily on ITAR-TASS and RIA-Novosti (the official government service) wire dispatches, which at times are the only news allowed out of the region, still under federal government control. The Journalists’ Union reasoned that Chechen – or Russian – security forces could have easily located and saved the journalists– or protected them better in the first place. The continuance of the kidnappings mean that powerful commerical and/or political forces at work which neither government can or will control.
Before the anarchy following the August 1996 rebel offensive, journalists were required to check in with the Chechen Interior Ministry and Press Center in order to receive a press pass, and usually obtained credentials from the Russian military as well in order to get through their numerous checkpoints. But many intrepid reporters easily evaded these obstacles. Indeed, the new regulations are being ignored by journalists, judging from the public complaints by Chechen officials that Russian reporters are refusing their guards, as well as denunciations of Russian journalists as intelligence agents. Two more Chelyabinsk Region journalists after the new rules were declared are all proof that the requirements are being ignored.
Russian journalists called on CPJ to join them in a call for a news boycott, but in an open letter to Boris Yeltsin on March 5, the Committee noted that as an organization devoted to press freedom, it could not endorse such a proposal, even in the name of a higher good such as the freedom and safety of journalists. The Union’s response was understandably blunt: “If New York thinks otherwise, let them send their own correspondents to Chechnya.” CPJ noted that the secrecy and bargaining for journalists, as well as impunity for their captors, had created a climate where would-be kidnappers were encouraged.
The new rules enforced by the Chechen security forces create a disturbing dilemma for the international press freedom community. Gravely concerned at the mounting total of missing journalists- CPJ has repeatedly called on the Russian and Chechen governments as well as international bodies like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to take public, forceful action to locate abducted journalists and bring them to safety. So far, only three of the journalists tracked by CPJ have been freed, including newspaper correspondent Natalya Vasenina, after being held for a harrowing five months in a damp pit.
Most tragic, in three sets of cases in CPJ’s list, including the most recent case announced April 2 by the Chelyabinsk Union of Journalists involving two newspaper reporters from Satka, the journalists travelled to the region either to look for missing colleagues, or to cover the story of missing civilians or soldiers – and wound up captured themselves.
Ultimately, CPJ cannot applaud the initiative by the Chechen Interior Ministry to restrict journalists’ movements. While ostensibly reporters will be kept safe with minders from the Chechen security force, travelling in government vehicles, there are at least three serious drawbacks to these measures: 1) very little genuine reporting will be possible; 2) Chechen rebel factions not supportive of the current Chechen government could identify compliant journalists as taking the official side, which could make all journalists vulnerable to attack (a number of those killed in 1996 were perceived as sympathizers of the previous, Moscow-backed Chechen government); 3) at its whim, the Chechen government can cut off even the heavily restricted access; 4) journalists who agree to the rules will engage in self-censorship to keep their access.
In the wars in the former Yugoslavia, the International Peace Implementation Force (IFOR, now known as the Stabilization Force, or SFOR) did provide some means to track and help reporters without overly restricting their news coverage. But such a relatively unbiased international force is not available for the Chechen conflict, which is supposed to be an internal dispute in the Russian Federation, and is supposed to be over. Moreover, the traditional peacekeepers in the region – Russian troops – would be inappropriate and unacceptable to the Chechens for this role. That leaves the OSCE, the unwieldy 53-member body being urged to leave Chechnya now despite its important role in the peace process. If OSCE can manage to stay on, perhaps the establishment of a Media Experts’ Commission, like the office currently operating in Sarajevo, would be helpful in protecting journalists. Reporters say they would be happy to have an OSCE press pass and intervention from OSCE if they encountered trouble.
In February, the Chechen government decreed that kidnapping was punishable by death; the move had no visible deterrence value as journalists continued to be nabbed. Chechen Interior Minister reported that 349 civilians had been reported kidnapped from December 1994 through January 1997, and the numbers have climbed since then.In April, the Chechen government announced that it was monopolizing the search business, ostensibly to keep its own leverage and to curb a thriving underground business in greedy middlemen eager to find people for the right price. That means that news organizations that have been conducting their own searches and negotiations for their colleagues are discouraged from going further.
During the war, brave reporters from the most outspoken Russian news media, like NTV (independent television) resorted to clandestine travel by car from neighboring Nazran, and even overland travel on horseback, to get the story. A few, like Natalya Chaikova of Obshchaya gazeta, who dressed up to pass as a Chechen peasant woman, paid for their lives for such ingenuity. Chaikova was found murdered execution-style in a Chechen village in March 1996 and to date no progress has been made in the prosecutor’s investigation of her death.
Undoubtedly, Chechnya is one of the world’s most treacherous conflict zones for war reporters, and CPJ advises in particular that freelancers without insurance or powerful media organizations backing them to think twice before travelling there. Those who do decide to travel should contact CPJ staff for survival tips.