Military tightens restrictions on journalists in Chechnya

New York, July 27, 2001–Under strict new rules prescribed by the Russian military, journalists covering the ongoing conflict in Chechnya must be accompanied by an official from the press service of the Interior Ministry at all times.

“Ultimately, the authorities’ actions are ineffective because we have our own sources and they will tell us the real situation,” said one independent journalist.

According to the Russian television network NTV, the commandant of the Russian military base of Khankala in Chechnya imposed the new restrictions on July 26 after a television crew traveling with Chechen security forces tried to enter the Chechen capital, Grozny, without permission from Russian authorities.

The media’s access to the war-ravaged region is already severely restricted by cumbersome accreditation procedures and rules that make travel within Chechnya dependent on the permission local officials. Reporters say the new regulation represents another Russian military attempt to control press coverage of the Chechen conflict.

“This is only the latest action in a systematic effort on the part of Russian authorities to restrict independent reporting on Chechnya,” said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper. “Russian authorities should demonstrate their expressed commitment to press freedom by allowing journalists in Chechnya to work freely, without official interference.”

Restrictions Designed to Reduce Negative Coverage of Chechnya
Journalists say the new escort requirement provides the military with significant leverage, since officials will select journalists whose coverage they consider more favorable.

Journalists based in Khankala say their reporting will also be limited by the military’s lack of resources. The government press centers have only three cars at their disposal, according to the local press, and journalists questioned whether officers would be willing to travel to areas that lack a military presence, or to places where authorities do not want the media covering military activities.

Even before the new rules, Russian reporters traveling in Chechnya without official permission paid a heavy price for their persistence: Last year, Veteran Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty journalist Andrei Babitsky was held incommunicado by Russian military officials and Chechen rebels for more than a month, where he suffered physical and psychological abuse. Because of her critical reporting on the Russian military in Chechnya, Novaya Gazeta reporter Anna Politkovskaya was detained and tortured psychologically by the Russian military.

But their colleagues say journalists will not be deterred by the latest bureaucratic barrier. Vyacheslav Ismailov, who covers military affairs for Moscow’s independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, told CPJ: “We’re not in the pay of the army and we’re not writing for them….Journalists will get round this, just as they have the previous restrictions. Ultimately, the authorities’ actions are ineffective because we have our own sources and they will tell us the real situation.”