Information in Russia’s North Caucasus republics is tightly controlled by the state and the threats to independent media there continue to grow, according to prominent Russian journalist Fatima Tlisova.
In a talk at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C., on June 15, Tlisova, who once served as editor in chief of the Russian Regnum News Agency, discussed her most recent travels in the North Caucasus and illustrated the decline of independent Russian media through eight cases of state repression.
“Reporters in the North Caucasus fear for their lives,” Tlisova said.
Tlisova’s account closely tracks with the findings of international organizations that measure press freedoms around the world. Over the last decade, Reporters Without Borders has found that press freedoms in Russia have steadily declined, with 2009 marking Russia’s worst year. In its “Press Freedom Index,” Reporters Without Borders now ranks Russia alongside nations like Sudan, Belarus, and Libya.
Freedom House also ranks Russia’s media as “not free.”
Tlisova put those findings in context, painting a portrait of the Russian state’s methods for suppressing independent news coverage and dissenting opinion. She claimed that Moscow and local governments in Russia work to “marginalize and alienate” independent journalists; that Russia maintains a system of “judicial repression and harassment”; that Russia upholds a regime of Internet censorship; that the Russian security and intelligence apparatus compels cooperation with the authorities under threat of death; and that the Russian government passively accepts the murder of dissident journalists.
Although these conditions exist throughout Russia, Tlisova focused on the conflict-ridden North Caucasus as the center of Russia’s clampdown on the press.
Highlighting the most egregious cases of oppression, Tlisova discussed the unresolved murders of journalists Natalya Estemirova and Magomed Yevloyev. Yevloyev, the owner of an independent North Caucasus news website, Ingushetia.ru, was murdered while in police custody in August 2008, an event that the OSCE deemed an “assassination.”
Yevloyev was a prominent critic of the pro-Kremlin president of the Russian republic of Ingushetia, Murat Zyazikov. Although President Dmitri Medvedev removed Zyazikov and Ingushetia’s interior minister from office two months after the incident, the Russian courts have failed to secure the conviction of anyone affiliated with the murder.
Estemirova, whose 2009 murder was linked by many within Russia to pro-government paramilitary groups, was a renowned human rights activist associated with the Russian human rights organization Memorial. At the time of her death, Estemirova was investigating alleged cases of killings, kidnappings, and torture in Chechnya committed by the Russian military and associated paramilitary groups.
Oleg Panfilov, another of the reporters profiled by Tlisova, is a former RFE/RL and AP correspondent and longtime critic of the Russian government’s restrictive media policies in the North Caucasus. Panfilov was forced to leave Russia in 2009 after declaring that “people in Russia are now afraid of expressing their ideas publicly.” He has taken up residence in Georgia, where he directs a Russian-language channel aimed at the North Caucasus.
Valery Dzutsev, now a Muskie Fellow at the University of Maryland, raised Russian and international attention with critical stories on the North Caucasus during his time at the Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR). Tlisova detailed how the Russian government pinned allegations of tax evasion on Dzutsev in an attempt to silence his activities.
Zurab Markhiev, another IWPR reporter in the North Caucasus, was given the choice by FSB agents of either collaborating with the FSB’s intelligence-gathering efforts or being killed.
Tlisova’s audience – composed predominantly of staffers and visiting scholars at the National Endowment for Democracy, with a smattering of representatives from the State Department and European embassies – gave her prepared remarks a mostly enthusiastic reception.
Tom Parfitt, a former Moscow correspondent for "The Guardian," praised her work overall. But he questioned Tlisova’s advocacy of two journalists – Adam Tumsoev and Mikael Storsjo – affiliated with the Kafkaz Center, an organization that Parfitt said “is a forum for jihadi violence and propaganda.” He warned that by failing to make a distinction between genuinely independent journalists and antigovernment journalists affiliated with rebel groups, Tlisova could strengthen the Kremlin and weaken the case for journalistic freedom in the North Caucasus.
-- Charles Dameron