New York, April 28, 2021 — Authorities in the Russian republic of North Ossetia should conduct a swift investigation into the death threats made to journalist Timur Mazayev, his colleagues, and his family, and ensure their safety, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
On April 14, a man identifying himself as Zelimkhan Bitarov, the son of former North Ossetia ruler Vyacheslav Bitarov, called Mazayev, chief editor of the independent news website Ossetia News, and threatened to kill him, his colleagues, and his family over a post on the outlet’s Instagram account, according to news reports and Mazayev, who spoke with CPJ in a phone interview.
After receiving the threats, Mazayev left North Ossetia for several days out of concern for his and his family and coworkers’ safety, according to the journalist and those reports, which stated that authorities have opened an investigation into the threats.
CPJ called Bitarov and emailed his secretary for comment, but did not receive any responses.
“North Ossetian authorities should take the death threats made to journalist Timur Mazayev, his family, and colleagues seriously, and should swiftly and thoroughly investigate the incident, and hold the perpetrator to account,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator. “Commenting on influential people in North Ossetia should never be a reason for Mazayev or any journalist to work and live in fear.”
In the early afternoon of April 14, Ossetia News’ Instagram account, which has about 213,000 subscribers, posted an image and caption covering a recent fight between Zelimkhan Bitarov and the son of the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), and featuring a satirical image staging that confrontation as a mixed martial arts competition.
Ossetia News is a news agency that specializes on publishing political, social, and sports news with a focus on North Ossetia; according to Mazayev, the agency publishes mostly on social media. Mazayev said that the outlet has previously wrote about Bitarov only once, when reporting the news about the actual fight between him and the son of the LDPR leader.
Shortly after the image was posted, Mazayev received a WhatsApp message from Bitarov’s assistant, telling him to expect a call from her boss, according to Mazayev and news reports. Mazayev said that he told the assistant that all his phone conversations were recorded and asked her to let Bitarov know that.
At 6:25 p.m., Mazayev received a call from a man who introduced himself as “Zelim Bitarov,” who complained about the Instagram post, cursed at Mazayev, and threatened him, his family, and his colleagues, according to those reports, Mazayev, and a recording of the phone call, which CPJ reviewed.
Bitarov said that, if the post was not deleted immediately, he would “cut all your heads the fuck off” in reference to Mazayev and his colleagues, burn Mazayev “along with his house and family,” and cut off Mazayev’s ears.
Later that evening, a man who introduced himself as Ruslan, the head of security for a brewery that Bitarov runs, called Mazayev, asked him to delete the recording of the phone call, and, in response to Mazayev’s request that Bitarov apologize, suggested that it was the journalist who had to apologize to Bitarov, Mazayev told CPJ.
On April 15, Mazayev met with Ruslan, and Mazayev played a copy of the recording, after which Ruslan apologized on Bitarov’s behalf but said that it would take time to get an apology from Bitarov himself, Mazayev told CPJ.
Mazayev said that shortly after that meeting, he received a call from a man who did not introduce himself and told him to stop looking for trouble if he wanted to live peacefully in North Ossetia. The journalist told CPJ that he then received multiple calls from unknown numbers, but did not answer them.
Mazayev’s colleagues and friends told him on April 15 that some people were looking for him and his contact information, he told CPJ. He said he fled North Ossetia on the evening of April 16.
On April 24, Mazayev returned to North Ossetia, and on April 26 he filed a complaint and testified about the incident at the Investigative Committee of North Ossetia-Alania, he said, saying that authorities are investigating the case.
When CPJ called Ruslan today for comment, he declined to give his last name and said that he was only aware of a dispute between Bitarov and Mazayev because he saw it “on the internet,” and called Mazayev to see if it was true. Ruslan did not answer CPJ’s questions about whether Bitarov had threatened the journalist, and said that the story was “over-inflated.”
CPJ emailed the Investigative Committee for North Ossetia-Alania and repeatedly called Eduard Gusov, a committee spokesperson, for comment, but did not receive any responses.