Journalists at independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta are in grave danger, after they exposed reports of the shocking treatment of more than 100 gay men in Chechnya, a Russian Republic in the North Caucasus. Leading Chechen authorities have since publicly called for the journalists to be punished. The paper has voiced fear for the safety of its staff.
Journalists should be free to investigate and publish important stories like this. Instead, they have been called liars and heretics by the authorities who should be investigating their claims of abuse.
Attacks on gay men
On 1 April, Novaya Gazeta reported that men suspected of being gay or bisexual had been rounded up en masse in a coordinated campaign. They were abducted, tortured and forced to identify LGBTI individuals known to them. The paper said that it has verified information that at least three men were killed by their captors, but its sources claim that many more could have died.
The reports made headlines around the world. We have called for Chechen and Russian authorities to investigate and punish the perpetrators of the attacks, as have many other organisations, including the UN. Governments have echoed our calls.
Yet authorities in Chechnya have reacted with a mixture of denial and call-to-arms against the journalists who exposed the story.
Targeting the journalists
On 3 April, two days after Novaya Gazeta published the story, 15,000 people – including Chechen elders, opinion leaders and Muslim theologians – gathered at a central mosque in Chechen capital Grozny.
Instead of rallying in anger at the reports that men were being abducted and tortured for their alleged sexuality, speakers denounced the allegations and instead focused their outrage on the journalists who broke the story.
A Counsellor to the Head of Chechnya, Adam Shakhidov, addressed the crowds, accusing Novaya Gazeta of spreading lies and calling its staff ‘enemies of our faith and homeland’. The full speech has been repeatedly broadcast on local state-controlled TV and on social media.
The assembly adopted a resolution to ‘promise that the real instigators will face retaliation, irrespective of where and who they are, however long this takes’ – where ‘the instigators’ refers to those behind the Novaya Gazeta story. Novaya Gazeta responded by publishing a piece voicing fear for its staff.
When independent Moscow radio station Ekho Moskvy came out in support of the threatened journalists, its staff were likewise threatened by the Mufti (Islamic scholar) of Chechnya.
History of punishing journalists who speak out
Calls for retaliation by influential people in Chechnya have all-too-often resulted in individuals being attacked or even killed. The figureheads calling for such retaliation are generally not punished for the calls, and there are no investigations into resulting attacks or murders.
Celebrated Novaya Gazeta journalist Anna Politkovskaya was murdered in 2006 in what is believed to be a contract killing. Politkovskaya had been a vocal critic of President Vladimir Putin, particularly of Russian operations in Chechnya. She was known for her reporting from the Second Chechen War, where she was subjected to a mock execution by Chechen forces. She received many death threats for her work and was shot dead in her apartment block in 2006.
Another contributor to Novaya Gazeta, human rights campaigner Natalya Estemirova, was murdered in 2009. Estemirova, a colleague and friend of Politkovskaya, reported from Chechnya on hidden abuses there. She was abducted on her way to work, bundled into a car and shot dead outside Grozny, three years after her colleague was murdered.
56 journalists have been killed in Russia since 1992, according to the Committee for the Protection of Journalists.
What we’re calling for
We’re demanding that Russian authorities:
- Investigate the threats to Novaya Gazeta and Ekho Moskvy staff, in accordance with the Russian Criminal Code regarding ‘obstruction of lawful activities of journalists’
- Publicly condemn all threats and violence towards journalists, and bring those responsible to account
- Guarantee freedom of expression and protect journalists, in accordance with the European Convention on Human Rights.