Death threats? They're all in a day's work for us

Running a newspaper in war-torn Chechnya presents challenges unimaginable to most Western journalists. Ian Burrell meets the editors who work in defiance of danger
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The Independent Online

hen the young British journalist talks of operating in a "good patch", they often mean their area has enough crime problems to keep the local courts busy and themselves in bylines.

Well, try this one for size: Grozny, Chechnya. Home to a conflict that over the past seven years has seen near civil war and the emergence of brutal militias, thousands of people killed and countless others "disappeared".

This is the environment that Stanislav Dmitrievskiy and Oksana Chelyshev have chosen as their "patch". The two are respectively the editor-in-chief and editor of the Russian Chechen Information Agency (RCIA), which is dedicated to using written news to further the prospects of a peaceful solution to what continues to be one of the world's most problematical regions.

And for his efforts to bring conciliation Dmitrievskiy has been given a criminal record and a two-year suspended jail sentence for allegedly encouraging racial division. His offence was to publish in the agency's newspaper, Pravo-zashchita (translation: rights protection) an article by the late Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov calling for a peaceful settlement to the conflict. That was followed by another piece, by Maskhadov's London-based envoy Akhmed Zakaev, calling on Russians not to vote for Vladimir Putin in forthcoming elections.

The case against Dmitrievsky has proved highly controversial, prompting a major campaign in his defence led by international human rights organisations that value the RCIA's reporting from a region almost wholly deprived of media outlets. Last week Dmitrievskiy and Chelysheva were honoured with Amnesty International's special award for "Human Rights Journalism Under Threat".

Amnesty's James Savage says it is hoped that the recognition will help to prevent the pair from being persecuted and allow them to continue with their work. "It sends messages back to the Russian authorities that Amnesty International is saying that these are credible, respected journalists doing much-needed work and their space to continue doing that work should be guaranteed."

In some ways they make an unlikely pair of campaigning journalists. Dmitrievskiy, 40, was previously an archaeologist, while Chelysheva, 38, was a university lecturer with a special interest in historical architecture.

Neither is based permanently in Chechnya itself - that would be too dangerous. As it is, the pair, both Russians and operating out of the city of Nizhniy Novgorod, have suffered numerous death threats for their perceived sympathy for Chechen separatists.

In March last year, leaflets were distributed in the neighbourhood where Chelysheva lives, labelling her a traitor and giving her home address. "She deserves shame and contempt. We are ready to fight her," said the leaflet, which was signed in the name of the Young Patriotic Front. Last September, Dmitrievskiy had a note put through his door threatening: "We say no to the pro-Chechen vermin, which live among us at our expense. Death to the enemy! We are waiting for you."

The RCIA's online news service and newspaper depend largely on the first-hand accounts of a pool of unnamed correspondents from among the Chechen public. "None of them are professional journalists and none has had professional training. They have been forced into this by their situation," says Chelysheva. "They are historians, economists, doctors, students. They made the choice of contributing to establish peace in their land."

Dmitrievskiy has been travelling to Chechnya since 1995. He and Chelysheva, who officially visit Chechnya not as journalists but as humanitarian workers helping child victims of the conflict, were in the region early last month where they spoke to young men who had suffered beatings and electric shock treatment on suspicion of being insurgents. Dmitrievskiy says that some 3,000 people have "disappeared" following abductions since 2002 and that only two people have been convicted of such crimes in the same period. Chechnya is policed, he says, by an 8,000-strong security force attached to the interior ministry.

Both journalists strongly reject the notion, perpetrated by the Russian authorities, that Chechnya has emerged from conflict and has entered a period of rebuilding and reconciliation.

Chelysheva says: "The Chechen people have been mousetrapped. They don't have anywhere to flee this continuing war on civilians. There's no safe place for them to go elsewhere in Russia because they are immediately put under surveillance by the Russian security forces."

Dmitrievsky has been active in Russian human rights work since he was 21 years old. He set up the Russian Chechen Friendship Society in 2000, shortly after 100 people died following a series of bomb attacks on Moscow blocks of flats. The attacks were blamed on Chechen terrorists and led to Putin sending Russian troops into Chechnya.

In 2004, Dmitrievskiy attempted to mediate with terrorists in the Beslan school siege, which ended with the massacre of hundreds of people.

But in February this year he was convicted under the Russian criminal code of "using mass media to make public calls to carry out extremist activity" following his publication of the two articles by Chechen separatist leaders. He is appealing the conviction.

On their recent visit to the region, they observed giant portraits of the 29-year-old, pro-Moscow, Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov. Like many members of the interior ministry security forces, Kadyrov is a former rebel who fought against the Russians before switching sides.

Chelysheva says she was "horrified" by the level of intimidation she observed last month. "People would only whisper to us because they were afraid their neighbours might report them to the security forces because they were in contact with journalists."

Following the presentation of the Amnesty award by the BBC correspondent John Simpson last week, Kate Allen, the Amnesty International UK director, praised Dmitrievskiy and Chelysheva for their "crucial role in defending human rights through their professional work". She said: "Russian journalists who report on events in Chechnya face one of the world's most daunting journalistic challenges and I salute the inspiring work of Stanislav and Oksana."

Continuing that work will not be easy. The last edition of Pravo-zashchita failed to appear after the Russian Chechen Friendship Society was obliged to abandon offices that had been provided by municipal authorities. They have found new premises although they expect the owners of the building to come under pressure from the authorities.

Most journalistic awards end up gathering dust on mantelpieces. But Dmitrievskiy and Chelysheva know they will return to Russia with not just an award but the safeguard of an international profile. "It's not just recognition of the importance of our work and its usefulness," says Chelysheva of the award. "It means security for us."