Canadian journalist harassed in Chechnya; press accreditation taken

New York, April 24, 2008–The Committee to Protect Journalists expressed concern today at the harassment in Chechnya of Jane Armstrong, Moscow correspondent for the Canadian national daily The Globe and Mail. Armstrong and her Russian photographer and interpreter Olga Kravets had traveled from Moscow to the Chechen capital of Grozny to report on social and cultural traditions in the southern republic last week, when police summoned her to the local station, interrogated her, and seized her press accreditation, Armstrong told CPJ today.

“We are disturbed by this attempt to intimidate Jane Armstrong and disrupt her reporting in Chechnya,” Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. “Efforts to obstruct independent coverage of the volatile region are longstanding. We call on Russian authorities to restore Armstrong’s accreditation and allow her to work in the North Caucasus undisturbed.”

At around 9 a.m. on April 17, two officers in plainclothes arrived at the Grozny hotel where Armstrong and Kravets were staying. They did not identify themselves except to say they were with the migration service, Armstrong told CPJ. Armstrong said she and Kravets had the day mapped out with scheduled interviews and meetings, but their plans were disrupted when, after a brief passport check in the hotel lobby, the officers summoned them to the Grozny police station for questioning. Over seven hours, Armstrong said, officers asserted repeatedly that she did not have proper accreditation.

Access to Chechnya, where Russia has sought to quell a secessionist movement for years, is extremely limited for journalists. Reporters and photographers must obtain specific accreditation to do any work in the region. Numerous other restrictions apply.

Armstrong said she presented police with accreditation she obtained in February from the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The ministry issued accreditation at the time to about 20 foreign journalists who took part in an official press tour of Chechnya. The accreditation card states that it is valid through April 30, Armstrong told CPJ. The official Web site of the Russian Foreign Ministry does not specify that any additional permit is needed. A call to Lyoma Gudayev, spokesperson for Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, went unanswered.

Nonetheless, when Armstrong sought to clarify the matter that day, the foreign ministry indicated that another, unspecified document was indeed needed.

Officers returned Armstrong’s passport and visa but said they would send her accreditation card back to Moscow–a move that would have halted her reporting trip. “I insisted that I get my card back,” Armstrong told CPJ. “I needed it to continue my work.” When Armstrong refused to leave the station, officers resumed the interrogation, asking her about the purpose of the trip, her contacts, and her scheduled meetings. At the end of the questioning, the officers agreed to issue Armstrong a temporary document that they said would allow her to finish the reporting trip. They did not return her accreditation card.

Now back in Moscow, Armstrong said she was still unclear as to what type of permit she might need if she were to go back to the North Caucasus. “I am confused about that,” Armstrong told CPJ. “Everyone was telling me a different story at every juncture.”

The Russian government–both on the federal and on the regional level–has suppressed independent reporting on the turbulent North Caucasus since the beginning of the second Chechen war in August 1999. Though the administration has claimed that life in the southern republic of Chechnya is returning to normal, few journalists are allowed to move freely and interview local residents without being harassed or obstructed by authorities. CPJ has recorded numerous cases of harassment, intimidation, abduction, obstruction, and physical assault against journalists. The official restrictive policies have led to an information vacuum about crime, corruption, and human rights abuses in the North Caucasus, and led to an overall public ignorance about the conflict-ridden region.