The Media in Chechnya
Recent events have cast doubts on the freedom of the press in both Russia and Cechnya. Ariana Mirza spoke to Chechen journalist Mainat Abdulayeva, who has been living in Germany since threats were made on her life in 2004, and asked her how she sees the situation
How would you describe the current press and media landscape in Chechnya?
Mainat Abdulayeva: There are over 50 newspapers and a variety of television stations in Chechnya. The Chechen media report on everything that goes on around the world. They report on Prince Charles and his sons, Jennifer Lopez and so on. As I say, they report on absolutely everything with one exception: they don’t report on what goes on in Chechnya. The media in Chechnya is censored and state-controlled; it sings the praises of the new Chechen government, acclaims the rebuilding of the country, and applauds the lovely new buildings.
There is no place for critical, free reporting. For years now, the pressure has been such that for quite some time, no independent journalists are willing to put themselves and their lives at risk. This is particularly true since the murder of Anna Politkovskaya. That was a ritual murder. It was meant as a warning to all critical journalists: this will happen to anyone who dares to report the truth.
Are you saying that the freedom of the press is restricted not only in Chechnya, but also in Russia?
Abdulayeva: The situation in Chechnya mirrors the situation in Russia. The only place in Russia where free media exist is on the Internet. Independent, good journalists are being forced to end their careers. Those who have principles and refuse to become part of the official machinery of lies can no longer publish anything.
What is your opinion on the developments of recent years?
Abdulayeva: The pressure is being stepped up every single day. I am in contact with Russian colleagues who tell me how dramatic the situation has become. They tell me: ‘Forget it. There is no way you can come back here and continue to work as a journalist. Since you went to Germany, things have got much worse.’ Now that we are in the run-up to the parliamentary elections, every opinion that deviates even slightly from the official line is taboo.
What do you think of the EU’s stance on the matter?
Abdulayeva: The fact of the matter is that the heads of government of the EU attach more importance to doing good business with Russia than they do to human rights. I lost any illusions I had about serious EU intervention with Putin a long time ago. Russian gas is more important than freedom of expression in Russia and it is more important than the blood that was spilled in Chechnya.
Almost 200,000 people, including an estimated 40,000 children have been killed there in recent yearsand that for a population that counts no more than 1 million people! Europe doesn’t talk about this. At least the government representatives don’t. The only time they tentatively raise the issue of Chechnya is if they are encountering any difficulties in negotiating with Putin. Once that’s over, the subject is forgotten again.
In your opinion, what role does the fact that the Chechens are Muslim play in all of this?
Abdulayeva: I am totally convinced that in addition to economic interests, this is another reason why Europe chooses to ignore the Chechen question. Nowadays it is very difficult to confront the hysteria about Islamic terrorismalthough, in my opinion, this threat is more hypothetical than actual. However, by maintaining this threat scenario it is very easy for governments to manipulate. They can easily restrict freedom of expression and freedom in general under the pretext of fighting terrorism.
They need a perceived enemy. One could say that it is just another piece of bad luck for the Chechens that they are Muslim. After September 11, Putin made sure that they were pegged as Islamic terrorists. And the world simply accepted this even though the causes of the conflict are altogether different. The Chechens only converted to Islam 200 years ago; their fight for independence, on the other hand, has been going on for 400 years.
What do you think has to happen for the situation to improve?
Abdulayeva: There won’t be an improvement as long as Putin or one of his puppets rules in Russia. The Chechen population is tired, it has lost all hope. The people just want to survive and to live without any further bombardments. They just want some form of peace, regardless of how it is achieved.
Are there any forces in exile who could bring about a change from the outside?
Abdulayeva: There are several websites where a variety of groups express themselves. Some of these websites call for independence, some are no more than a forum for people with opinions that are different to those voiced by the current government. None of this is particularly organised or structured.
What do you think of the fact that the application for asylum in Germany submitted by the Chechen poet Abti Bisoultanov, who has been living here for many years, was recently rejected?
Abdulayeva: I wasn’t in the least surprised. I know a lot of people who have been deported from Germany and were subsequently persecuted and tortured in Chechnya and Russia. Despite the fact that there was a very obvious threat to their lives, they were sent back there. On the other hand, I must say that I did think that Abti Bisoultanov’s international renown would help him a little. After all, he is very well known in literary circles.
Nevertheless, his application was rejected and a specious reason was given. He had absolutely no links to terrorists and as Minister of Social Affairs was responsible for hospitals and things like that. There are absolutely no facts that speak against him. The rejection of his application for asylum is based on unproven speculation. At the same time, this decision puts the then government, which was freely elected by the Chechen people, on a level with criminalsbut without any proof to back up these claims.
What is your assessment of the position of the German media towards the events in Chechnya?
Abdulayeva: I have said it so often, but I will say it again: it is a forgotten war. Even journalists only report on it now when something horrific happens, something like a suicide bomb attack, a kidnapping, or, most recently, the murder of Anna Politkovskaya. It is so dreadful that the subject is only of interest when a person like Anna Politkovskaya is killed. And even then, the story only stays in the news for a week. After that, it is forgotten and repressed.
How long more will you be able to stay in Germany as a scholarship holder of the program ‘Writers in Exile’?
Abdulayeva: The scholarship has been extended three times. That is the absolute maximum. It runs out at the end of 2007.
Will you seek asylum?
Abdulayeva: I have absolutely no desire to apply for asylum. Despite the fact that I live a very good life in Germany, I don’t want to live like a pensioner here; I want to work as a journalist. What’s more, I want to return to Chechnya or Russia as soon as it is possible.
Do you think it would be safe for you to travel to Chechnya?
Abdulayeva: Of course I cannot say for sure whether I can or will be allowed to go back because Chechnya is de facto still in a state of war. The war has taken on a different, less obvious form. Nevertheless, it is still a place ruled by violence; a place where there is no freedom of expression; a place where people disappear without a trace on a daily basis; a place where people are killed.
The interview was conducted by Ariana Mirza
© Qantara.de 2007
Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan
As a correspondent for the Moscow-based newspaper Novaya Gazeta and a freelance reporter, Mainat Abdulayeva worked in the North Caucasus region from the start of the Second Chechen War. Her articles have also been published in German newspapers such as the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and the Süddeutsche Zeitung. Abdulayeva left Russia in November 2004 after she and her child had received several death threats. She has been living in Germany as a scholarship holder of the German Pen Centre ever since.