Awards 2003 – Muradov

International Press Freedom Awards

Musa Muradov is the editor-in-chief of one of Chechnya’s most independent publications, the weekly Groznensky Rabochy. Throughout the 1990s, and especially today, the newspaper is a rare voice of reason in Russia’s highly divisive and distorted media coverage of the conflict in Chechnya. Muradov has been repeatedly harassed and threatened by both Russian federal authorities and by Chechen rebels because he refuses to allow Groznensky Rabochy to become a mouthpiece for either side.

Muradov was born and raised near Chechnya’s capital, Grozny. In 1982, after graduating from Moscow State University’s journalism department, Muradov returned to Grozny and began reporting for Groznensky Rabochy, which, like all Soviet publications at that time, was controlled by the Communist Party.

Following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, Groznensky Rabochy became an independent publication, and Muradov became its editor-in-chief. Two years later, as secessionist movements in the region gained momentum, Chechnya’s separatist leader Dzhokar Dudayev attempted to convert Groznensky Rabochy into his administration’s official publication. Muradov and most of his staff refused to compromise the paper’s newfound freedom and walked away. Groznensky Rabochy was consequently shuttered, and Muradov took a job as a correspondent for a regional publication while teaching journalism at a local university.

In 1994, with the situation becoming increasingly violent in Chechnya, Muradov and his family fled to Moscow. They returned a year later, and in the spring of 1995, Muradov resumed publishing Groznensky Rabochy. In 1996, one of Muradov’s reporters was killed in crossfire, and Muradov himself was trapped in a basement for 14 days because of fallout from the intense shelling of the capital. In 1999, while Muradov struggled financially to keep the paper afloat, a bomb destroyed the editorial offices, and another reporter was killed. Finding it impossible to live and work in Grozny, Muradov and what remained of his staff joined tens of thousands of Chechens and fled to the neighboring region of Ingushetia, where they resumed publishing Groznensky Rabochy and shipped it back to Chechnya.

In 2001, for security reasons, Muradov again moved with his family to Moscow, where he continues to edit the weekly despite increased government restrictions on coverage of the conflict.

CPJ Interview with Musa Muradov in Moscow on September 26, 2003

CPJ: Why did you establish your own newspaper, Groznensky Rabochy?

Musa Muradov: It is not correct to say that I established this paper. It is a very old newspaper, established in 1917. Up to 1991, the paper was the official communist newspaper. I was an employee of the paper up until 1991, when the communist regime collapsed. The paper stopped functioning…. Some time later journalists revived the newspaper and I became head of the newly created paper. In 1994 the paper was closed because of the first war. We reopened in May 1995 and since then the paper has been published on a weekly basis.

CPJ: What role does your newspaper play in the life of Chechnya?

MM: I think it is pretty significant because over the last three years there has not been a single scheduled newspaper issued in the republic…. When the pro-Russian administration headed by [Akhmed] Kadyrov came to power, they started their own official newspapers, but people didn’t put much trust in them. I think that our newspaper enjoys the trust and respect from both parties to the conflict. We have never sided with the Russians or the Chechens and have never had any support from the parties. That is why we were able to write articles we were interested in and express our own point of view. Because of that, in 1999-2000 we were the only objective source of information.

In 1999, when we came to the refugee camps, our newspaper was just as much in demand as bread because it was the only source of information. There was no radio or TV. Nothing. Even today this is the only newspaper that has no links to the authorities. This does not mean that we are in opposition to the authorities, but we have the freedom. We do not write from the words of the officials. Our readers see that and trust us for that.

CPJ: Do you have a lot of enemies on both sides?

MM: Yes, we do, even though we have never launched any attacks on the specific factions, but everyone wants us to publish their version of the story. Unfortunately, the main rule today is that “if you are not on our side, you must be on the other,” and I have constant problems with this. The last biggest problem appeared in 2001, when a poster was put on the wall of our building saying that the Shariah [Islamic] court convicted [and sentenced] all our newspaper employees to the death penalty. Anna Politkovskaya [of the Moscow independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta] wrote an article about this incident asking why [Chechen rebel leader Aslan] Maskhadov remains silent. Later we received a letter from Maskhadov saying this poster had nothing to do with him or his supporters. He said that they do not like some of the materials published in Groznensky Rabochy but not to the degree that they would kill people. We made guesses about who was behind this poster, but had no answers. We received anonymous calls from [Islamic extremists] Wahhabis, who said we were doing the wrong thing. We had no idea what was right and what was wrong in their eyes.

CPJ: Why did you move to Moscow?

MM: At some point in September 1999 when the second war started, our building in Grozny was destroyed and all the employees moved to [the neighboring republic of] Ingushetia as refugees, where we continued working.

CPJ: Was this bombing accidental or on purpose?

MM: This was a pure accident. The [Russian military] bombers were hitting everything then in the center of Grozny. So we moved and for the next two years worked from Ingushetia. As I said before, we had no links to either of the factions, but the federals thought we were supporting Maskhadov because we were writing about the problems the refugees had. Both Maskhadov and the federals [Russian military forces] were displeased with us. The local police and the FSB [Federal Security Service] searched our office several times and confiscated material. Then in the spring of 2001, we started receiving these anonymous calls. We eventually stopped paying attention to them. Later, we were pressured by the local Interior Ministry, who accused us of cooperating with Maskhadov. These posters appeared threatening our lives. After these events I went to Moscow and met with [Aleksei] Simonov and the Glasnost Defense Foundation … to ask for advice. I was afraid for my employees. Twice armed men came to the house of my deputy at night looking for her.

I want to say that the second war [in Chechnya] was very different for journalists. If you wanted to work officially and not be harassed by the federals you had to stay and write from the military base, leaving base with a strict military escort and having all of your contacts approved by the military. So there was no free movement around the republic. Once I moved through Grozny right after combat actions together with my colleague. We were immediately arrested, brought to a military base, and kept us there for 24 hours. We used the advantage that we were locals and had passports with local registration, which allowed us to loose the [military escorts] and go to villages and talk to people. I think this fact was very annoying to many of the police and secret services. For example, we did a big interview with Maskhadov, which was published on the first page of [the Moscow-based independent daily] Kommersant newspaper. After that, I was questioned at the local prosecutors office. They wanted to know where I had found him, since he was wanted in the country and they couldn’t find him. Of course, I couldn’t tell them much. I had also worked with a German newspaper and my articles were published directly in the West. This irritated the authorities. That is why we were under pressure and in fall 2001 we had to move to Moscow. Our office was closed for eight months. We all scattered around the country to avoid the ongoing threats.

Since we ran out of the money we received from the Soros foundation–our paper had no revenue at all–we didn’t work for some time and then in March 2003 we received a grant from the National Endowment for Democracy and opened the office in Grozny. The federals had no means of closing or prohibiting the newspaper because it was an official newspaper registered, not with Maskhadov’s government, but licensed by the Russian Press Ministry, just like any other Russian newspaper.

CPJ: Why did you decide to stay here after reopening the paper?

MM: First, I was concerned for my personal security: I was told by contacts in the [police and security] ministries that if I moved to Chechnya my life would be in serious danger.

CPJ: Do you go to Chechnya often?

MM: Yes, I do. I go to the republic without any official accreditation or declaration. I can pass all the checkpoints not as a journalist, but as a local. I have all the [required] documents, and they do not have photos of me all over the republic, thank God. In 2001, when we were detained, they kept us at the base not because we were locals wandering around, but because we were journalists….

CPJ: How do the restrictions on journalists set up by the Kremlin and local authorities affect the quality of the coverage and the information people get?

MM: The worst effect is that legally a journalist cannot freely move in the republic and collect information. You can be officially accredited with the press service, but that does not mean that you are free to travel and search for alternative sources. For two years you had to sit at the military base or be escorted to the locations by the military, thus seeing only the things the military wanted you to see. Today the journalists’ center is located on the territory of the administration and the situation is the same. The result is that it is very hard to get objective information.

CPJ: Are there journalists who are traveling at their own risk?

MM: Yes, there are. What is more, all the large media companies–Agence France-Presse, APTN–have made agreements with local stringers to get information. The stringers are taking a lot of risks. It is very dangerous. Recently a stringer for Agence France-Presse was kidnapped. For three months now his whereabouts are unknown. He was kidnapped in broad daylight in Ingushetia and taken to Chechnya. These are the risks.

CPJ: Do you think that the international community has any influence on the situation in Chechnya?

MM: Yes, it can. I think that the situation in Chechnya would have been much worse if the region were totally closed off from the world. It would have been worse if the non-governmental organizations in the United States and Europe had not provided constant monitoring of the situation there. Mainly non-governmental organizations, such as Human Rights Watch, are involved in monitoring the situation. But the reports they present to the public have a limiting effect on what happens.

CPJ: Is there a hope for Chechnya to have independent press?

MM: Formally there could be free press. If I compare the materials we published in 1999-2000 (during the second war) to the materials we publish today, I would say that the current material is a lot worse. Today we do not receive threats, but there is this sense of internal censorship–you make the decision to publish or not publish a report based on your sense of personal responsibility for the physical consequences and personal safety. This is the only factor you consider because the legal system in Chechnya does not work at all. There are many different armed groups in the region: the federal forces, special forces, security service, and the rebels. If you write something unpleasant about any of them, they will not take you to court, they would simply break your neck. Security considerations are the highest priority in our case. Or, if you are lucky, you will simply be beaten up. There is still a long way to go until we will have normal free press.

CPJ: What part would you like to play as a journalist in Chechnya’s future?

MM: I don’t see myself playing a part in politics. For me, the best role would be society’s instrument of control over the authorities. My understanding of the role of the media is to be the eyes and ears of the people. If my paper can do that, it would be the best outcome.

CPJ: What does freedom of the press mean to you?

MM: To me freedom of the press is when the author and the editor, before printing the news report, thinks not about the reaction of the president or other officials, not about personal consequences, but about the value of the information presented and of its interest to the readers. The concern for the reaction of common people is the main idea of freedom of the press. The authorities and the press can never be “relatives” or partners. In 1991, I made a promise to myself never to work on the side of officials even if offered high-level positions.

CPJ: Is there hope that journalists in Chechnya will ever find this freedom?

MM: Even in Russia there was a period, under Yeltsin, when journalists had even too much of this freedom. The situation in Russia is similar to the situation in Chechnya. It is like a zebra: black stripe, white stripe. There is no continuous movement toward stability and the development of a truly free press. Looking back and comparing different times, we can see that yesterday was better than today, but the day before yesterday was worse than today. That’s how it goes here. I think that later on the situation may turn for the better.

CPJ: Why has it become harder to work today?

MM: I think the authorities analyzed the coverage of the first war [in Chechnya] and drew certain conclusions because there were practically no limits for journalists then. In a way, this may have helped to stop the war, at least for two years. This campaign was different. The officials have put the issue of media coverage of the war as the top priority. You know about this new amendment passed by the Duma [Russian parliament]–if a journalist does an interview with a terrorist he may be put to jail for aiding terrorism. I tried to explain that conducting an interview with a killer does not mean that I support him, but it didn’t work. I am covering this issue not because I want to support murderers or terrorism. It is my professional obligation to do so. But the officials do not think that way. If you talk to Maskhadov or [Chechen rebel leader Shamil] Basayev they think that you are taking their side. That is why officials sealed off many ways of getting information during the second war. The same works for the local press. If you say something that is not liked by the local administration, that immediately makes you their enemy.

At present, we have practically no criticism in our reports about Chechnya. We took a break simply to save ourselves for future work. Our single good deed today is that we do not praise the authorities. On the other hand, I can write reports for the [independent Moscow daily] Kommersant, which is not under the control of Grozny authorities.

CPJ: How did your work as a journalist influence your family?

MM: Very badly, frankly speaking. I have nearly lost my family. My wife even told me that my real wife is my newspaper. The only positive moment was in 1999-2000, when nearly the whole population of Chechnya was unemployed, being a journalist meant I had a good salary. I had a contract with a German paper, worked for Kommersant and so on, though the family had to leave Chechnya as well.

CPJ: What is the situation in Chechnya today?

MM: Comparing the situation today to the previous two years I can say that travel in the republic has become much easier…it’s easier now to pass through check points, and there are many peaceful civilians in Grozny, many cars, but you cannot travel on your own. It is very dangerous to walk around with a camera there, the camera equals a Kalashnikov or a grenade launcher…it attracts the attention of the military instantly…because the rebels while carrying out an attack always try to have it recorded….

CPJ: Can elections improve the situation?

MM: I think there won’t be a dramatic change after the elections. … I also think that Kadyrov will start a purge of his party and the government after officially receiving the presidential post. This will provoke opposition and lead to an increase in the number of people who are against him. Unfortunately, it is hard to say that elections will bring peace to the region. I think the situation would have been a lot better if two or three powerful candidates would settle the issue and the best one would come to power. And more people would have thought that this was an honest election.

After the elections Kadyrov will formally have full authority in the republic, but we all know that the real power belongs to the military. All the civilian institutions will remain as they were before the elections. Kadyrov will try to get more power and that could provoke a conflict between him and the military. Formally, after the [presidential] elections and parliamentary elections, Chechnya becomes a legal territory just like Balkaria [west of Chechnya] or other regions of Russia, which means that the military should not be out in the streets as they are now. Until the military leaves, they control the streets. You don’t see that in other regions of Russia.

CPJ: Who is Kadyrov?

MM: Kadyrov has many supporters, sort of like a private army. You must understand that these are not only the rebels who took his side after the war. Many of them supported him long before the war. Back in 1998, being the head mufti of the republic, he was the only one to say that Wahhabis [Islamic extremists] will bring evil to the republic and endanger it, and the people strongly supported him. Maskhadov turned out to be very weak, letting the extremists murder people and commit other atrocities. Kadyrov started to oppose them and criticized Maskhadov for his passive position. Since Maskhadov didn’t respond, several popular field commanders sided with Kadyrov, and they are his main force today. Extremist ideas were not popular in Chechnya at all, but the Wahhabis were armed very well and posed a serious threat to the republic.

CPJ: Is Kadyrov’s authority enough for Chechnya?

MM: It would be difficult to say that he has vast political support, since first he was with the rebels, then sided with the federals. Switching sides caused him to lose supporters on both sides. He also didn’t make many friends by switching his political orientation.

CPJ: Is there hope that in the next few years Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Chechen administration could find some final solution for the region?

MM: I see some prospects. Many politicians understand that not much of the population cares deeply about politics. For most Chechens, the priority is simply to survive. That is why even Maskhadov’s supporters are ready for a political compromise. Maskhadov and [Chechen envoy Akhmed] Zakayev are no longer speaking categorically of political independence. They mostly want security for the population. The general attitude has changed over the years.