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UN: Award-Winning Editor -- 'Internal Fear' Dulls Reporting On Chechnya

  • Robert McMahon

Musa Muradov was feted last night at one of the premier international journalism events of the year, collecting a press freedom award from the Committee to Protect Journalists. The editor of Chechnya's independent "Groznensky Rabochy" said in earlier comments that reporting in the Russian press about Chechnya has declined in the past year under increasing pressure from the Russian government.

New York, 26 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Musa Muradov has faced more than his share of hardships in coordinating newspaper coverage of two wars in Russia's breakaway republic of Chechnya during the past decade.

But he says the second conflict, now four years old, has posed the most serious challenges. The Russian media climate has passed from a kind of golden era of freedom under former President Boris Yeltsin, Muradov says, to one of heavy-handed control under President Vladimir Putin's administration.

Muradov, editor of the independent "Groznensky Rabochy," was speaking to reporters ahead of last night's annual award ceremony of the Committee to Protect Journalists at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York.

He was one of four international journalists to win prestigious press freedom awards, in recognition for his work in maintaining an independent news source amid harassment and threats from both Russian authorities and Chechen rebels.

The ability of the press to cover Chechnya has been notably stiffer under the Putin presidency, and since the October 2002 hostage-taking incident at a Moscow theater by Chechen rebels, Russian authorities have moved even further to restrict press coverage of the war.

Muradov says it marks a stark turnaround from the Yeltsin era: "I think the most important thing was we were not afraid back then to -- very openly to their faces -- criticize the bureaucrats, criticize the military. Today, you have a certain internal fear as during the times of the KGB."

Russian authorities have increasingly cast the Chechen war as part of an international struggle against terrorism and have linked Chechen rebels to the Islamic terror group Al-Qaeda.

Press and human rights watchdog groups regularly criticize Russia for its treatment of media and civilians in Chechnya. But Western governments, which have in the past sought to pressure Russia to enforce rights standards in Chechnya, have been less willing in recent months to press it publicly.

Muradov says the post-September 11 war on terrorism has further complicated the situation for journalists covering conflicts like Chechnya: "I think that after the events of 11 September in America, after the Iraq war and after the war on terrorism was declared, and it became this struggle of universal proportions, I think the pressure intensified on you as a journalist on what you're going to write -- is it going to aid the terrorists? -- and I think that perhaps that is a feeling that might be shared by my Western colleagues, as well."

Muradov, who now publishes "Groznensky Rabochy" from Moscow, says when he and his staff visit Chechnya, they hide their journalistic identities and conduct interviews while traveling as ordinary citizens.

Putin's administration has been attempting to portray the situation in Chechnya as returning to normal. It conducted a referendum earlier this year on a new local constitution and held elections last month for president of the republic.

Muradov says there have been some noticeable changes in Chechnya this year, such as the reorganizing and reopening of major civic organizations. But with thousands of Russian soldiers still deployed in the republic, he says, the situation is not normal:

"It is true that movement around the territory is easier for citizens of Chechnya. The civil authorities try to act a little more confidently. But nevertheless, the entire situation is under the control of the military," Muradov said.

There are still close to 70,000 displaced persons from Chechnya in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia.

In addition, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said this month that more than 23,000 Russians have sought permanent asylum in the European Union and future member states this year. Many of them are believed to be from Chechnya.

Muradov believes lasting improvements in the republic can only come from a political settlement of the conflict: "Unless the federal authority finds some formula for political dialogue with the conflicting side, I think the chances of changing the life of the Chechen population for the better and make them part with their fear, will be very, very grim."

In addition to Muradov, other recipients of press-freedom awards last night were:

Abdul Samay Hamed, an independent writer and publisher in Afghanistan who has come under attack for his comments on warlords.

Aboubakr Jamai, who publishes two weekly investigative newspapers in Morocco, "Le Journal Hebdomadaire" and "Assahifa al Ousbouiya."

And Manuel Vazquez Portal of Cuba, who helped establish the independent news agency Grupo de Trabajo Decoro and was jailed earlier this year as part of a government crackdown on press freedoms.