As Kidnappings Mount, Chechen Government Puts New Restrictions On Journalists

Faced with a mounting toll of Russian journalists’ abductions, the new Chechen government has heavily restricted reporters’ movements. The May kidnapping of independent Russian NTV’s prominent war reporter Yelena Masyuk and two crew members was the latest in a string of kidnappings, possibly related to the intention of some Chechen factions to derail the 1996 peace settlement with the Russian Federation. In March, the Chechen Interior Ministry announced that all journalists must register with the ministry, travel to the republic only by air, stay in the government compound at the airport, and accept armed government bodyguards–for which they must pay. As of May 12, CPJ had documented at least 14 media employees missing in Chechnya–more than anywhere else in the world. Those abducted in 1997 and still held are believed to be alive; seven who disappeared in 1995 and 1996 are feared dead.

Before the January elections, two television journalists from ORT (Russia’s public television channel) were seized at gunpoint and held for a month. The secrecy shrouding the bargaining between Russian and Chechen officials over their release sparked rumors that the capture was part of an elaborate effort by Chechen rebel factions or Russian intelligence agents to scuttle the elections. ORT, which had also suffered the shooting death of a bureau chief in August 1996, withdrew all its personnel from the region. Most other news organizations followed suit.

In February, Italian photographer Mauro Galligani, on assignment for the Italian weekly Panorama, was pushed into a car by unidentified gunmen. Regional observers claimed that the willingness of an Italian humanitarian organization to make a settlement to release its workers in September 1996 provided the incentive for Galligani’s abduction. Chechen officials said they were unable to trace the abductors, despite communications demanding a $1 million ransom. On April 14, RIA-Novosti, the official Russian government news service, reported that Galligani was back in Rome and characterized his return “as a complete surprise to the … Chechen Interior Ministry.” A Chechen official said the Italian Embassy might have dealt directly with the kidnappers. But Chechen national security chief Abu Mousayev maintained his men had tracked the kidnappers and aided the release of the Italian journalist.

The March 4 seizure of four Russian media employees–two correspondents from the official Russian news agency ITAR-TASS, one Radio Rossiya reporter, and a satellite technician–unleashed vigorous condemnation from the Russian government, which had previously preferred to use silent diplomacy. Perhaps because it was the largest group of journalists taken since the war began, all from state-sponsored media outlets, or perhaps because the Chechen kidnapping followed a similar Russian hostage drama in Tajikistan that began Feb. 4, what Izvestia deemed as “titanic efforts by central, regional, and local officials” have been sustained at a high level for many weeks. By May, however, relatives complained that Interior Ministry officials told them they had “exhausted all their resources” on the search.

The capture of the four government media employees prompted the official Russian Union of Journalists to call for an “information blockade” of Chechnya until their colleagues were released. Chechen officials responded on March 6 with an order for all journalists to leave the republic immediately, “in the interests of safety and for the promotion of the [peace] negotiations,” according to the Associated Press. Several days later, the Chechens relented, but set the new procedures for reporters.

At first, the news blackout–intended mainly as a consciousness-raising device–dissipated in a few weeks. All the news media as well as government analysts rely heavily on ITAR-TASS and RIA-Novosti wire dispatches, at times the only news available from Chechnya.

Russian journalists asked CPJ to join them in supporting a news boycott, but in an open letter to Russian President Boris Yeltsin on March 5, the committee explained that as an organization devoted to press freedom, it could not endorse such a proposal, even in the name of a higher good such as the freedom and safety of journalists. CPJ noted that the clandestine bargaining for journalists, as well as impunity for their captors, had created a climate that encouraged would-be kidnappers. The union’s response was a terse challenge: “If New York thinks otherwise, let them send their own correspondents to Chechnya.”

Russian Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov resurrected the boycott idea on April 9: “As long as people will pay money for the hostages in Chechnya, they will go on being abducted. … We’re not seeing enough desire on the part of the [Chechen] interior minister to help us look for journalists. I would recommend declaring an information blockade against Chechnya–then they’ll think twice.” On April 10, the Russian Journalists’ Union, the Glasnost Defense Foundation, and the union’s Committee to Defend Free Speech and Journalists’ Rights again entreated editors, publishers, and radio and television executives: “Don’t send your employees to Chechnya if you have the slightest feeling of responsibility for them.”

Frustrated at the lack of progress in finding their colleagues, Russian press groups called on journalists to contribute to the $2 million ransom if the Russian government would not pay it, “no matter how shameful it looks to give in to [the kidnappers’] demands and no matter what dangerous precedent it sets.” Families of the abducted reporters have received phone calls demanding the ransom payment.

Generally, journalists agree that the recent rash of kidnappings are motivated by greed rather than politics. “They take journalists because they are valuable and visible,” one foreign correspondent in Moscow told CPJ. An independent Russian journalist who now refrains from travel to Chechnya believes the prevalence of state news employees among the missing is more a matter of probability than ideology. “Reporters who have to run around looking for a new story every day, meeting lots of different people, are more at risk.”

Before the anarchy that followed the August 1996 rebel offensive and the subsequent uneasy cease-fire, journalists were required to get press credentials through the Chechen Interior Ministry and Press Center and usually obtained passes from the Russian military as well to navigate through the numerous checkpoints. But intrepid reporters easily evaded those protocols. Both Russian and foreign correspondents say their past experience argues against complying with the new rules, and there is ample evidence that journalists are ignoring them, judging by the frequency of complaints from Chechen officials that Russian reporters are refusing their guards. Frustrated at their inability to control Russian news coverage, Chechen officials have also denounced Russian journalists as intelligence agents.

If they stick to their own network of trusted contacts, journalists argue, staying in private homes–even engaging their own armed driver/escorts–they feel safer than those who stay in the government’s hotels and hire unfamiliar drivers. But two who avoided the government’s minders, reporter Olga Bagautdinova and photojournalist Alexander Utrobin from Chelyabinsk Region newspapers, seized in March, fared no better. (Utrobin escaped his captors and contacted authorities, who stormed a rebel apartment to free Bagautdinova.)

Gravely concerned about the mounting total of missing journalists and reports that at least two of the hostages are ill, CPJ repeatedly has called on the Russian and Chechen governments as well as on international bodies such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to take public, forceful action to free abducted journalists and to ensure safe working conditions for the media. So far, five of the journalists tracked by CPJ have been freed, including newspaper correspondent Natalya Vasenina, who escaped after a harrowing five-month captivity in a damp pit.

The new rules have created a dilemma for the international press freedom community. While the ostensible purpose of government drivers and minders is to keep journalists out of harm’s way, there are several serious drawbacks to these measures. They restrict genuine reporting; Chechen rebel factions opposed to the current Chechen government could equate acceptance of government bodyguards with pro-government sympathies, leaving all journalists vulnerable to attack (a number of those killed in 1996 were perceived as sympathizers of the previous, Moscow-backed Chechen government); the Chechen government could cut off even the current heavily restricted access; and journalists who agree to the rules may engage in self-censorship to keep their access.

In the wars in the former Yugoslavia, the International Peace Implementation Force (IFOR, now known as the Stabilization Force) used a press-pass system to trace and help reporters without necessarily restricting their news coverage. But such a relatively unbiased international force is not available in the Chechen conflict, which is supposed to be an internal dispute in the Russian Federation, and supposedly is over. Moreover, the traditional peacekeepers in the region–Russian troops–would be unacceptable to the Chechens. That leaves the OSCE, the unwieldy 53-member body that at times has been urged to leave Chechnya by some elements of the Chechen leadership despite its important role in the peace process. If the OSCE can manage to remain, perhaps the establishment of a Media Experts Commission, such as the OCSE office currently operating in Sarajevo, would be helpful in protecting journalists. Reporters have told CPJ they would be happy to have an OSCE press pass and would welcome intervention from OSCE if they encountered trouble.

Chechen officials have decreed that kidnapping is a capital crime, punishable by public execution. But the moves have had no visible deterrence value, as journalists continue to be seized. In April, the Chechen government reiterated that all search efforts had to go through a special investigation office, ostensibly to maintain leverage and to curb a thriving underground business in greedy middlemen eager to find abductees for the right price.