Oksana Chelysheva: The slow, painful death of journalism in Russia

For a while, we are not going to be acting as a clearing house for news about Chechnya


Did you read about the death of press freedom in Russia the other day? Well, probably not. Independent journalism doesn't expire in a single, dramatic moment. It's more like a series of small blows, leading not to out-and-out demise but suffocation and a life-sucking loss of morale.

Another significant punch was landed last month. Russia's Supreme Court in Moscow closed the Russian Chechen Friendship Society (RCFS) on 23 January. This non-governmental organisation, which I helped run in Nizhny Novgorod, was the home for independent journalism on Chechnya. So, they closed us down and - for a while at least - we're not going to be acting as a clearing-house for journalism about Chechnya.

Consider the events of the past few months. When the wasted figure of former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko died from polonium 210 poisoning in London in November, a murder mystery began. Two months later, it is far from clear what lay behind this bizarre, John le Carre-style affair, but one thing is certain: a trenchant critic of the Russian government has fallen silent.

Likewise, just a few weeks prior to Mr Litvinenko's death, the similarly outspoken journalist and commentator Anna Politkovskaya was also killed. A woman of about my own age, coming back from the supermarket with grocery bags under her arms, she was gunned down in the lift of her own apartment block in Moscow.

Two unrelated killings? So it would seem. But, recalling that Alexander Litvinenko appears to have been poisoned by tea laced with polonium 210, it's chilling to remember that Anna Politkovskaya had also been the target of poisoned tea during a plane journey in 2002. Mr Litvinenko had publicly blamed the Kremlin for the massive apartment block bombings that triggered the second Russian offensive in Chechnya in 1999. Similarly, Ms Politkovskaya had repeatedly lambasted Russia's armed forces in Chechnya for their "war crimes", denouncing President Vladimir Putin himself for "crushing liberty". Both wrote books expanding on their views.

I am not saying that the Russian president ordered these killings, nor that he was even involved. I am, though, registering shock and dismay at the lack of interest Mr Putin's government has in safeguarding independent journalism and freedom of speech. Last October, a few days after Politkovskaya's death, a regional Russian court ruled that our RCFS organisation was illegal because it was led by a man convicted of 'extremist' activities. Indeed the RCFS's executive director - my friend and colleague, Stanislav Dmitrievski - was convicted last February on "race hate" charges.

This is ironic. Classic, ugly, skinheaded racial violence is certainly virulent in Russia, but Stanislav's "crime" had been to publish pro-peace articles by Chechen separatist leaders. One of them had been by Ahmed Zakayev, the Chechen envoy and former culture minister who has been granted political asylum in Britain.

Whatever he is, Stanislav is no extremist, simply a journalist reporting views on Chechnya deeply uncomfortable to the Russian authorities. His two-year suspended sentence meant that, under a controversial new NGO law, the authorities could close us all down because we were run by a "criminal".

The skirmishes have their farcical side. When we arrived for our Moscow court hearing last month, the high turnout from international observers seemed to rattle the authorities temporarily. With representatives from the European Commission, officials from the embassies of countries such as Germany, the US and Sweden, and monitors from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch all in attendance, the normally punctual court felt it necessary to postpone the hearing for three hours.

When they returned, the courtroom had become too small to accommodate all the spectators. Some of the mystifyingly large group of newcomers were asked by our camp why they were at the court that day. It transpired that they were law school students who had been ordered to attend simply to fill up the courtroom so that international observers would be squeezed out.

When it is not something worse, this sort of treatment appears to be the fate of awkward-squad journalists in Putin's Russia. The likes of Stanislav and I, already the recipients of anonymous leaflets proclaiming our status as "pro-Chechen vermin", are cast as ready-made criminals in show trials for the edification of law students. It's all part of the slow death of independent journalism in Russia.

Oksana Chelysheva and Stanislav Dmitrievski were awarded the Amnesty International UK media award for "human rights journalism under threat" in 2006

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