Facing harassment, Web site editor flees Russia

New York, August 7, 2008–The editor-in-chief of independent news Web site Ingushetiya has fled Russia and is seeking asylum in Europe, daily The Moscow Times reported today.

Ingushetiya‘s lawyer, Kaloy Akhilgov, told CPJ that Roza Malsagova left Russia two weeks ago being harassed, threatened, and beaten by Ingush authorities. She also faces criminal prosecution. Earlier this year, regional prosecutors opened several criminal cases against Malsagova, charging “incitement of ethnic hatred” and “distribution of extremist materials.”

“Through harassment and intimidation Russian authorities have succeeded in driving a leading independent journalist into exile,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “President Dmitry Medvedev recently affirmed his commitment to civil liberties and freedom of speech. The persecution of Roza Malsagova suggests that much more must be done to uphold this commitment.”

Last fall, masked men came to Malsagova’s house in Nazran, beating and threatening her in front of her children, the lawyer said. Malsagova then moved to Moscow in November, and in January learned that prosecutors in Nazran had opened a criminal case against her on extremism charges. Akhilgov said he collected some eight summonses from Ingushetia’s prosecutors in Malsagova’s apartment in Moscow last week.

“She thought she would be safe in Moscow, but they kept threatening her over phone and e-mail,” Akhilgov said. Malsagova reportedly informed her colleagues of the threats but did not ask police to investigate them.

Ingushetiya is the sole daily media outlet critical of regional President Murat Zyazikov. The Web site has covered the disappearances of local residents, corruption, unemployment, and anti-government protests. It has also called for Zyazikov’s resignation.

Regional authorities have been shuttling the extremism lawsuit against Ingushetiya between four different Russian courts, starting in February. In June, Kuntsevo District Court in Moscow ordered the closure of the Web site, alleging it contained extremist content in a series of articles, Ingushetiya‘s defense lawyer Musa Pliyev told CPJ. The Moscow City Court will review Ingushetiya‘s appeal on August 12.

Independent journalists have faced constant harassment in Ingushetia, CPJ research has found. In January, police in the Nazran rounded up nine journalists and two human rights defenders and detained them at the local police headquarters for several hours, preventing them from reporting on an opposition protest. Two of the journalists were badly beaten. Three months earlier, three Moscow-based REN-TV channel correspondents and a human rights activist were kidnapped by a group of about 15 camouflaged men from a hotel in Nazran and taken close to the border with Chechnya, where they were severely beaten.

In a more recent case, Zurab Tsechoyev, the editor of human rights Web site Mashr, was abducted from his home by about 50 camouflaged men, taken to the local federal security service headquarters in the regional capital, Magas, where he was severely beaten and threatened. Tsechoyev was hospitalized with a broken leg and kidney injuries.