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Informal Censorship Kremlin-Style, Chechnya Media Experts Report

(Washington, DC--December 4, 2003) Two experts on the press situation in Chechnya described at a recent RFE/RL briefing the difficult situation facing journalists who try to report unbiased news on the conflict in Chechnya. Alex Lupis, of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), said that the "Kremlin's new strategy of informal censorship" was a "complex, subtle and effective strategy to stifle reporting." Musa Muradov, editor-in-chief of the Chechen newspaper "Groznensky Rabochy" and winner of the 2003 CPJ International Press Freedom Award, spoke of the every day challenges of defending his newspaper's integrity in a time of war.

Lupis stated that the Russian government makes reporting on the conflict more difficult as it "restricts, obstructs, and in some cases tries to censor" the work of journalists. He said that domestic journalists are required to get permission before interviewing refugees and are forced to travel in the company of military escorts as they carry out investigations in Chechnya -- under threat of deportation. He said pressure is also placed on foreign journalists, as visas are often denied to those who do not report on official Russian activities in a positive manner. Some even claim, Lupis said, that there is a "blacklist" to deny visas to journalists whom the Russian government does not want in Chechnya. He also cited examples of informal acts of intimidation in which the government is either known or suspected to have been involved, including the shutting down of various pro-Chechen websites and the intimidation of theater managers who planned to host a Chechen documentary film festival this past fall in Moscow.

Lupis suggested that the "militarization of media regulation" indicates the weakness of Russian President Vladimir Putin, in part because Putin has tied his image to the war in Chechnya. "Managed democracy has created a facade of normalcy," Lupis said, and if information about the war were to flow freely, then "the popularity of the Kremlin's policies might decline."

Speaking through a translator, Muradov described what he called the "difficult task" of reporting as an independent journalist in an area that is clearly divided in two. Each side in the war views Muradov's newspaper as supporting, and being funded by, the other side. Trying to assure the Russian federal forces and the Chechen partisans that this was not true became a failing effort when the paper was closed in 2001 for ten months. Just before the paper was closed down, posters appeared in Grozny denouncing Muradov and his colleagues and stating that the local Islamic Sharia court had issued a death verdict against them for collaborating with Russian authorities. Both Russia and the Sharia court denied that they had anything to do with the posters. Russian officials simultaneously seized the newspaper's archive, however.

Muradov admitted that adopting a pro-Russian government position or the Chechen separatist's side would make life "safer and easier" but "the reader of his newspaper would be the loser." Taking guidance from either side would mean the loss of editorial independence, pointing to the disappearance of various newspapers following changes of power in Chechnya in 1996 and 1999 as evidence of this. Muradov also emphasized the importance of maintaining independence through third-party funding -- his newspaper currently operates with grants from the Soros Foundation and the U.S.-based National Endowment for Democracy.

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