Attackers beat group of journalists covering human rights abuses in North Caucasus

New York, March 9, 2016–The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns today’s attack on a group of six journalists and two human rights activists from Russia, Norway, and Sweden, and urges authorities in the Russian region of Ingushetia to bring those responsible to justice.

At least 15 masked men used vehicles to force a minivan carrying the journalists to stop on a highway linking the North Caucasus regions of Chechnya and Ingushetia, at about 7:20 p.m. according to news reports. The attackers broke the windows of the vehicle, forced everyone out, and beat them with wooden sticks while shouting “Get out of Chechnya, there is no place for you in [the capital] Grozny,” Alexandrina Elagina, one of the journalists who was attacked, told CPJ by phone. The attackers took the journalists’ reporting equipment and some of their belongings, and set fire to the minivan before fleeing, Elagina, from the independent Russian-language magazine The New Times, said.

The journalists were returning to Grozny from a reporting trip to Beslan, North Ossetia, which was organized by the Committee to Prevent Torture, its staff lawyer, Sergey Romanov, told CPJ. The independent group, based in Nizhny Novgorod, investigates human rights abuses in the North Caucasus and elsewhere in Russia. Egor Skovoroda, a reporter for the independent news website MediaZona who was injured in the attack, said the group had been followed by a car with Chechen license plates all day, according to reports.

The attack follows a burst of menacing comments on social media and in the press against critical journalists and rights activists by government officials in Chechnya in January. At the time, CPJ wrote to Russian President Vladimir Putin to condemn the language, noting that such rhetoric against government critics is often followed by violence. In response, A. V. Kotov, from the regional prosecutor’s office in Chechnya, wrote to CPJ on March 1 saying his office found no evidence of incitement to violence in the articles and social media posts highlighted by CPJ. A copy of his letter, in Russian, can be viewed here.

“Today’s attack on a group of journalists who were in Russia’s volatile North Caucasus to cover human rights abuses was enabled by the government’s inaction in the face of overt hostility to the press,” said CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova. “When regional officials are allowed to menace reporters in public forums–and bear no consequences for doing so–the enemies of a free press are emboldened to act.”

As well as Elagina and Skovoroda, the group included Øystein Windstad, a reporter for the Norwegian monthly Ny Tid; Maria Persson Löfgren, from the Swedish public broadcaster Sveriges Radio; Mikhail Solunin, a Russian blogger; and Anton Prusakov, a journalist at the Moscow-based business daily Kommersant. The journalists were accompanied by Ivan Zhiltsov and Ekaterina Vanslova, from the Committee to Prevent Torture, and a driver, Bashir Pliyev.

According to news reports and Elagina, everyone in the group was injured. Elagina, whose leg was bruised, said Windstad, Persson Löfgren, and Pliyev are being treated at a hospital in Ingushetia. Windstad told a colleague that he thought he was going to die during the attack, the Norwegian outlet NRK reported. The rest of the group are giving statements to Ingushetia police, who responded promptly to the incident, Elagina said. The journalist said she believes the attack was in retaliation for their reporting on human rights abuses in the region.

A few hours after the attack, armed, masked men were seen on security cameras breaking into the Ingushetia offices of the Committee to Prevent Torture. No staff were in the offices at the time of the break in, an employee at the rights group told CPJ.