Target: Russian female journalists
By Maria Yulikova Posted Jul 17 2008
Since the chilling murder of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya in October 2006, allegedly ordered by Chechen officials, female media professionals from Russia have suffered from severe abuse by local authorities.
Manana Aslamazyan, 56, is the former director of the Moscow-based Educated Media Foundation (EMF), which is the successor of Internews Russia, an NGO that trains and supports journalists. In May 2007, she was forced to flee Moscow and move to Paris where she currently resides in fear of persecution by Russian law enforcement agencies.
On Jan. 21, 2007, Aslamazyan arrived at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport where she had mistakenly overlooked the difference in the rates of U.S. dollars and euros and forgot to declare the money she was carrying. Customs officers detained Aslamazyan, and police confiscated $12,964 in cash — a personal debt she had collected from a friend in Paris. As a result, Aslamazyan was charged with smuggling Jan. 31, a crime that is punishable by up to five years imprisonment.
“First, when the custom authorities stopped me, I wasn’t very nervous. I was just mad at myself for such carelessness,” Aslamazyan said. “I was also quite sure that I violated administrative law, and my punishment would be just a fine. A custom officer took me to a separate room and drew up a report on my violation. Then she demanded my interrogation, mentioning that I could do it later in the presence of my lawyer. I decided to postpone it to be able to call my lawyer, and went to testify in three or four days.”
On March 22, 2007, Fatima Tlisova, 41, arrived in the United States as a refugee with her two children. Tlisova had worked for several media organizations including Russian newswire agency Regnum, the AP, and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty as a correspondent in the North Caucasus.
As a journalist, she had covered all the military campaigns of Russian federal forces as well as terrorist attacks including the Beslan school siege and the militant raid of the local rebels on Nalchik, the capital of the Kabardino-Balkar Republic, in October 2006.
The journalist regularly received anonymous death threats. She has been watched and frequently arrested and mistreated by the local police. In October 2004, when Tlisova was helping two German journalists, several unknown men took her to an isolated spot and tortured her. They severely beat her and burned her fingertips with cigarettes to remind her, they said, to write the “right” things in the future.
“This is essential to understand,” Tlisova said. “If you work for foreign media, in the Caucuses this means that you’re a spy and the enemy of Russia.”
In October 2005 an unknown person entered her apartment while she was away. Then, after Tlisova had coffee at home and used some cosmetics, she suffered from kidney failure and her skin started to peel from her face. One month later, the journalist became ill again and lost consciousness after drinking tea. After Tlisova found herself in a hospital very weak and sick, she made the tough decision to leave her home country.
“These were my bosses from the AP who urged me to flee Russia,” Tlisova said. “They decided that it was too dangerous for me to stay home. Besides the regular death threats and poisoning, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs refused to accredit me as the AP correspondent, so my work became illegal. Nevertheless, I still plan to go back to the Caucuses and work there.”
Natalya Morar, 24, an investigative reporter for the weekly magazine The New Times, was detained Dec. 16 at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport. She is a citizen of Moldova, received her education in Moscow and worked in the Russian capital since graduating from the university. Morar was coming back from Israel where she was on business when the custom authorities stopped her at passport control.
The Federal Security Service (FSB) prohibited Morar from entering Russia and claimed the journalist “persona non grata.” Authorities used Articles 27 of Russian Entry & Exit Law, which says a foreign citizen cannot enter Russia if he or she threatens the state security or defense as a pretext for Morar’s extradition. The journalist was forced to go back to her homeland of Moldova.
Morar’s colleagues and Russian political and human rights activists believe that Morar was banned from entering Russia because of her article “Black cash desk” that appeared in The New Times Dec. 10. In this story, Morar discussed how the Kremlin-controlled funding system for political parties in Russia secured the victory of the majority pro-Putin party, United Russia, in parliamentary elections Dec. 2.
“This is obvious that the reason for not letting me in Russia is my investigative reporting on the FSB and on the FSB economy department in particular,” Morar said. “The Russian government prevented me from working on journalistic investigations in Russia now. The officials understand that this is virtually impossible to conduct the same research from out of the country.”
On Feb. 23, Morar got married to a Russian citizen who was her colleague from The New Times, Iliya Baranov. Four days later, the couple tried to enter Russia through the town of Kishinyev, Moldova’s capital, and she was stopped again. Both journalists spent three days in the transition zone of the Moscow airport until Morar fell ill, and they flew back to Moldova.
On Feb. 29, the couple sent a letter to then Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the first vice-president and President Dmitry Medvedev asking for their assistance. At the same time the journalists of Russian independent radio station Eko Moskvy (Echo of Moscow) composed and posted on the Internet an open letter to Putin, Medvedev and the head of president’s administration Sergei Sobyanin. The journalists asked the government leaders to get involved in Morar’s situation — either help her enter Russia or prove that she cannot enter the country because of serious reasons.
Until now there has been no response. Morar is currently suing the FSB. If she doesn’t succeed, she plans to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.
On March 2, the Russian people elected a new president, Dmitry Medvedev. The elections were widely recognized as unfair, but there is still hope that Medvedev will be more liberal than his predecessor and will stand for rule of law in Russia.
If this is the case, Russian media will be forced to progress, and the journalists may have a chance to become better protected by the law. Therefore, if this prognosis will prove to be utopian, the Russian state will continue to look weak, defenseless and scared of its own strong and professional women.