CPJ calls on Putin to end harassment of Chechen newspaper

New York, July 29, 2004—The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) calls on Russian President Vladimir Putin to ensure that government officials in the southern republics of Ingushetia and Chechnya end their campaign of harassment against the independent weekly Chechenskoye Obshchestvo (Chechen Society), which is based in Ingushetia’s capital, Nazran.

According to Chechenskoye Obshchestvo Editor Timur Aliev, officials from the Interior Ministry’s Organized Crime Directorate called him into their office in Nazran yesterday morning, July 28, and questioned him about the newspaper’s recent reporting on human rights abuses committed by Chechnya’s pro-Moscow authorities, as well as by Russian soldiers and security forces operating in Chechnya.

“First they wanted me to say I’ll shut the paper down, and when I refused, they said they would get a decree to close the paper,” Aliev told CPJ.

This morning, the director of the state-run printer in Nazran, Poligrafkombinat, told Aliev that police also called him in, and that the company could no longer print Chechenskoye Obshchestvo.

Murat Zurabov, a press officer for the Interior Ministry in Nazran, confirmed to CPJ in a telephone interview today that Aliev had been called in to “speak” with Interior Ministry officials. He denied any pressure on Aliev or Poligrafkombinat and said he knew of no efforts to close the paper.

According to local press reports and Aliev, the Chechen Interior Ministry recently sent a letter to the Ingushetia Interior Ministry asking Ingushetian authorities to close Chechenskoye Obshchestvo. However, Ruslan Atsaev, the press officer for the Chechen Interior Ministry, told CPJ that his ministry had not requested the closure. “It’s possible the letter came from some other government institution in Chechnya, but I would have known if the Interior Ministry had requested this,” Atsaev told CPJ.

Aliev told CPJ he was unsure that his newspaper could continue publishing because of the harassment.

“Police officers and other government officials continue to harass independent journalists’ reporting on the conflict in Chechnya and in neighboring Ingushetia,” said CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper. “We call on President Putin to ensure that authorities allow Chechenskoye Obshchestvo to continue publishing without fear of reprisal.”

This is not the first time that Chechenskoye Obshchestvo—which was founded in Nazran a year ago because of poor security conditions in Chechnya—has been targeted for its coverage of the conflict in Chechnya.

In April, the Media Ministry in Chechnya issued an official warning to the weekly for its reporting on the February 13 assassination of Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, a Qatar-based fund-raiser for Chechen rebels, according to the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, a Moscow-based press freedom organization.

The assassination became an international embarrassment for the Kremlin when authorities in Qatar arrested and convicted two Russian agents for planting the car bomb that killed Yandarbiyev.

Ingushetia remained relatively insulated from the conflict in neighboring Chechnya throughout the 1990s, but security conditions began deteriorating in 2002, when the Kremlin orchestrated the electoral victory of FSB officer Murat Zyazykov in the republic’s presidential elections.

Reports of mysterious abductions followed Zyazykov’s decision to open the republic to Russian soldiers and security services hunting for Chechen rebels hiding in Ingushetia.

Reflecting the Kremlin’s growing sensitivity to international media and diplomatic scrutiny of the conflict in Chechnya, starting in 2003, police and FSB officers intensified their harassment of journalists in retaliation for reporting on human rights abuses committed against Chechen refugees by Russian authorities.

One of those journalists, Ali Astamirov, a Chechen stringer for Agence France-Presse based in Nazran, was repeatedly detained and questioned by Ingushetian authorities in early 2003 and then abducted that July and never heard from again.