Just days after Federal Nationalities Minister Igor Barinov apologized for branding three respected Daghestani weeklies as coming close to betraying Russia's national interests, a potential new threat has emerged to the publications in question.
One of the three, Chernovik, reported in its December 25 issue that Republic of Daghestan head Ramazan Abdulatipov has tasked one of the law enforcement agencies with compiling a list of media outlets, journalists, and bloggers whose writing qualifies as "subversive" and "supporting extremism."
That development is particularly disturbing insofar as Daghestan is one of the few federation subjects with independent media outlets whose reporters remain uncompromisingly committed to upholding a degree of media freedom absent elsewhere (especially in the North Caucasus), sometimes at the cost of their lives. No fewer than 15 Daghestani journalists, including former Chernovik editor Gadzhimurad Kamalov, have been killed over the past 20 years (although none since Abdulatipov was first named acting republic head three years ago). None of those killings has been solved.
What is more, some observers infer that Abdulatipov was behind Barinov's critical remarks. Addressing the Third Forum of North Caucasus Media in Pyatigorsk on December 10, Barinov claimed that three Daghestani newspapers -- Chernovik, Novoye Delo, and Svobodnaya Respublika -- had positioned themselves in opposition to the Daghestani and possibly even the federal authorities, and "overstepped the mark beyond which...this borders on the betrayal of national interests."
Barinov further said those papers make no distinction between the Russian pilots currently deployed in Syria and "terrorists," and accused them of seeking to justify the shooting down by Turkey in late November of a Russian warplane. He opined that in this situation "the state should use force and its authority" against the papers in question.
Abdulatipov, who was sitting next to Barinov, reportedly expressed approval of Barinov's allegations.
North Caucasus Federal District head Sergei Melikov, however, whose family hails from Daghestan and also attended the forum, immediately took issue with Barinov. Melikov denied the three papers are in any way subversive, and stressed the importance of the role of independent media in reporting on domestic political problems in such a turbulent region as Daghestan.
In a statement to the website Kavpolit.com the same day, Chernovik editor Mairbek Agayev categorically rejected the accusation of betraying national interests. He said that the three papers are the only sources in Daghestan of an alternative viewpoint, and that his paper's editorial line can be summarized as "don't steal and don't violate the rights of the people."
Agayev further suggested that Barinov had been induced by Abdulatipov to criticize the three papers publicly. Barinov himself acknowledged at the forum that he had just visited that republic and had traveled from there to Pyatigorsk in Abdulatipov's company.
Barinov had reportedly been displeased by the failure of some Daghestani students forced to attend an official function in Makhachkala to rise to their feet when the state hymns of Russia and Daghestan were played. The website Onkavkaz.com suggested that Abdulatipov's aides had told Barinov that the three newspapers were directly responsible for the students' "lack of patriotism."
The day after the forum, the heads of various federal and Daghestani agencies received phone calls from Abdulatipov's office asking them to stop providing the three publications with information.
Novoye Delo editor in chief Gadzhimurad Sagitov similarly commented that Barinov's assessment was in all probability due to his taking at face value the information fed to him by Abdulatipov's entourage, given that anyone who read the paper regularly would know such criticism was groundless.
Novoye Delo wrote to Barinov seeking to clarify the reasons for what it termed "a stab in the back." In an editorial, it asked how long he had been reading the paper, and on the basis of which specific articles he had reached his conclusions.
Barinov has apparently not yet responded to those questions. His office did, however, contact Chernovik to offer apologies.
Like their Chernovik colleagues, the editorial staff of Novoye Delo denied ever taking up a position in opposition to the federal authorities and reaffirmed their readiness for "constructive cooperation" with the Federal Agency for Nationality Affairs that Barinov heads.
The paper then cited largely positive comments on its coverage from 10 republican officials and public figures and Caucasus experts, including journalist Maksim Shevchenko, who thought Barinov had been set up, and physician Magomed Abdulkhabirov, who suggested the three publications should take Barinov to court.
By contrast, Svobodnaya Respublika declined to respond to Barinov's accusations. Its political commentator, Zaur Gaziyev, was quoted by the news portal Caucasus Knot as saying simply that "we don't know" what they were based on.
Whether or not Barinov's criticism of the three newspapers was based on distorted information originating with Abdulatipov's entourage, Abdulatipov has good reason to resent their efforts to provide objective analysis of both political developments and economic affairs. Chernovik reported in detail on the two successive trials of former Makhachkala Mayor Said Amirov on charges of murder and terrorism that the prosecution struggled to substantiate.
More recently, Chernovik has relentlessly chronicled the republican authorities' disastrous handling of measures to renovate the ancient southern town of Derbent in the run-up to the September 2015 celebration of the 2,000th anniversary of its foundation. Moscow provided the lion's share of the funding for those measures, but neither Russian President Vladimir Putin nor Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev traveled to Derbent to take part in the festivities. Their absence was widely construed as a reflection of official displeasure.
Abdulatipov's apparent desire to muzzle such newspapers is understandable if he believes his standing vis-a-vis Putin is being eroded as a result of their reporting. Ironically, Putin himself is on record as having ordered investigators to work more intensively on solving the killings of Daghestani journalists.
In his annual address to the Daghestani parliament in January 2015, Abdulatipov gave the number of slain journalists as 12, adding that 11 of those killings had been solved.