Can Russia Protect Its Journalists From the ‘Homegrown ISIS’ in Chechnya?

Alexey Venediktov “in Grozny.” Illustration by Valery Osipov. Edited by Kevin Rothrock.

Earlier this month, the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta published a startling discovery: security forces in Russia’s predominantly Muslim Chechen Republic have been rounding up gay men, brutally detaining and sometimes executing them. The report gain international attention, as the story has since become known as Chechnya’s “gay concentration camps.”

On April 3, three days after Novaya Gazeta’s bombshell, two dozen Islamic leaders gathered in Grozny’s central mosque to discuss the issue in front of 15,000 worshippers. During the congregation, an advisor to Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya’s autocratic leader, publicly called Novaya Gazeta’s journalists “enemies of our faith.”

When the discussion was finished, the religious leaders adopted a formal resolution that included the following language:

Ввиду того, что нанесено оскорбление вековым устоям чеченского общества и достоинству мужчин-чеченцев, а также нашей вере, мы обещаем, что возмездие настигнет истинных подстрекателей, где бы и кем бы они ни были, без срока давности.

In view of the insult to the centuries-old foundations of Chechen society and the dignity of Chechen men, and also to our faith, we vow that retribution will catch up to the true instigators, wherever they are and whoever they are, no matter how long it takes.

Novaya Gazeta’s editors say this resolution has provoked a wave of threats online, and this Thursday the newspaper appealed to Russian law enforcement, asking for protection.

Almost immediately after publishing its appeal to police, Novaya Gazeta’s website apparently suffered a distributed denial-of-service attack. The newspaper then copied the text of its appeal into a Facebook post, which sympathetic readers shared more than 1,300 times.

The next day, writing on his blog, Alexey Venediktov, the chief editor of the independent radio station Ekho Moskvy, published a message of solidarity with Novaya Gazeta’s journalists, addressed to several branches of the Russian federal government.

Вы ждете чего? Пока ваши центры «Э» гоняются за подростками с кедами, у вас под боком выросла наглая, бесконтрольная, вражеская государству сила, которая смеет угрожать гражданам России.

Или она уже настолько выросла, что вы опасаетесь даже приступить к расследованию? Или доморощенный ИГИЛ настолько сильнее вас, а вам остается лишь продолжать беспомощно наблюдать, как они грозят и убивают?

What are you waiting for? While your “anti-extremism” units are chasing down teens in Keds, a bold, unchecked, hostile state force that dares to threaten Russian citizens has emerged right under your nose.

Or has this force grown so powerful that you’re even scared to launch an investigation? Is this homegrown ISIS so much stronger than you, that all you can do is look on helplessly, as it menaces and kills?

Sticking to his ISIS comparison, Venediktov argued that Chechen officials’ threats against Novaya Gazeta’s reporters resemble the Islamic State’s ultimatums against journalists. “It’s easy to mix up the two,” he wrote darkly.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Friday that the government won’t tolerate any violence against reporters, explaining that anyone who objects to Novaya Gazeta’s reporting must respond “using legal methods.”

In the meantime, Andrei Sabinin, a lawyer with the Agora human rights group, filed a lawsuit against Russia’s Federal Investigative Committee for failing to respond to Novaya Gazeta’s initial report about Chechnya’s mass crackdown on gays.

Asked about the allegations of “gay concentration camps,” Peskov told journalists, “We don’t have any reliable information about any problems in [Chechnya]. We monitor reports in the mass media, but — much  as one would like us to do — we can’t take these reports as verified information.”

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