Russia’s 9 time zones are often exploited by TV management to pull controversial programmes, but the internet has changed the rules of the game. A recent film about kidnap victims in Chechnya was shown in the Far East, but not in European Russia. The ensuing outcry and internet activity show that people have had enough of censorship, says Tanya Lokshina
Programmes on the main Russian television channels are broadcast in the Far East first, because of the time difference. Folks in Vladivostok and Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky are already retiring for the night when Muscovites are going out to work – there’s 7-8 hours difference between them. So only in the evening, when they return home, do Muscovites and Petersburgers watch the programmes broadcast earlier in the east.
But sometimes this doesn’t happen. If the management realises that the programme is ‘unreliable’ and may harm the political interests of the Kremlin and that someone made a serious error in allowing it to be shown, the programme is taken off air. As a result, problematic material gets shown in the Far East and the Urals, and then vanishes into thin air. One glimpse and it’s gone. The audience in the European part of Russia is entertained by a lengthy commercial break.
One could cite fair number of such instances from recent years…
In February, for example, journalists wondered why footage of Volochkova, the flamboyant ballerina who unexpectedly criticized ‘United Russia’, was shown on Channel One and on NTV only in the eastern regions but not at all in the centre. It would take too long to recount older and more socially significant cases of programmes taken off air – in the last ten years there have been a fair number. But it would be quite wrong not to remember Andrei Loshak’s coverage of the resettlement of Moscow’s centre, ‘There’s an office here now’, which Muscovites were only able to see on the internet.
A recent scandal
There was a genuine media scandal over the pulling of an NTV piece on kidnap victims in Chechnya on Sunday, 30 October. All Monday news agencies ran the story as one of the main news items of the day. Material on this topic was the most read section on the BBC’s Russian language pages. By the evening the piece itself, posted on YouTube, had been viewed by around 53 thousand people. By Tuesday the story had been covered in all the main newspapers – and no, not just those publications like Kommersant which don’t on principle avoid the topic of Chechnya.
It seemed as if everyone had grown used to this practice – both the viewers and the press. But patience has its limits, and it looks as if the ‘Chechen saga’ has proved to be the last straw. Not, of course, because the story was about Chechnya specifically – although this material could not fail to arouse interest, given the Chechen leader’s recent 35th birthday celebrations at which Hollywood and Russian stars of stage and cinema appeared. Most probably because people have just had ENOUGH. However, to start at the beginning.
The scandalous story revolves around the case of Islam Umarpashaev. Islam was 24 when he was abducted in December 2009 by members of the Chechen militia (at that time not yet renamed as police). For around four months he sat chained to a radiator in the basement of an OMON [Special Purpose Police Unit] barracks in the Chechen republic. First they beat him, even tortured him with electric shocks. They wanted information on rebel fighters. But Islam couldn’t tell them anything useful –his own subversive activity consisted entirely of abusing ‘the pigs’ in internet chat rooms, threatening them with punishment from Allah (which, in fact, he was caught doing).
Fairly soon OMON stopped applying ‘special methods of pressure’ to the ‘underground prisoner’. They fed him, once a week they took him for a wash and…even kindly explained that when his beard and hair had grown to the required length they would turn him into a suicide bomber. The law enforcement officers get good bonuses from the Chechen authorities for the discovery of terrorist plots, so – as Islam recounts – they planned to kill him during the May holidays, while he was ‘attempting to blow himself up’ on the anniversary of the death of Akhmed Kadyrov, the father of the Chechen republic’s current leader.
There have been more than a few cases in Chechnya of people first abducted by Kadyrov’s security service officials and then killed apparently with weapons in their hands or explosives on their belts. Islam had heard quite enough of such tales himself, and was almost resigned to his fate. But he was lucky. His despairing parents turned to the Joint Mobile Group of human rights organisations in Chechnya.
The Joint Mobile Group
The Joint Mobile Group was formed a few months after the abduction and murder of probably the most famous Chechen activist, Memorial employee Natasha Estemirova. Natasha worked in an extremely dangerous field – she investigated cases of abduction and murder in which Kadyrov’s forces were implicated. She put them in the public domain, brought journalists together with victims and witnesses, persuaded the relatives of the murdered, the disappeared, the unjustly accused to strive for justice, to turn to the European court of Human Rights… When Natasha died it seemed for a time that this sort of human rights work in Chechnya had also died out. It was too dangerous for local civil society activists to work on these cases… and just how dangerous! Judging by what happened to Natasha, it was downright suicide.
Then the organisation ‘Committee against Torture’ started organising human rights activists from other regions of the country, mostly lawyers, to travel to Chechnya in groups of three. They take turns to work there, literally seeking out those inhabitants of the republic brave enough to put in a formal complaint about the actions of Kadyrov’s people and, with the Joint Mobile Group, to seek justice.
Today in Chechnya people are paralysed by fear. As a rule the parents of a murdered son remain silent. Those whose son is tortured, or indicted on fabricated charges, also remain silent. Because if you start to complain, those same criminals or their colleagues will come and beat you up or take away one of your family.
Nowadays people in the republic are prepared to talk and to ask for help essentially in only one situation – if a person disappears without trace after being abducted.
Then the relatives cannot but search, knock on every door, use any means of saving the missing or finding out about his fate and at least receiving the body, if he is dead.
Members of the Joint Mobile Group are well aware of the enormous dangers connected with their work in Chechnya. Their local office is monitored by cameras all the time, and they never go out without sound recorders turned on in their pockets.
So Islam Umarpashaev’s relatives approached the Mobile Group. They simply didn’t know where else to turn. The Mobile Group’s lawyers disentangled the case, swamped the law enforcement bodies with requests and made a complaint to the European court. ‘Urgent questions’ rained down on the Russian leadership from Strasbourg and they were ‘passed down the line’ to Chechnya. Local investigators had at least to look as if they were doing something, so they began to ‘bother’ OMON, who decided that it would be simpler just to let Islam go, given that he was causing them so many problems. When they released him, they, of course, made him swear that he would pretend to have spent the last four months hanging out somewhere in the Moscow region without the permission of his parents (‘My dad would never have let me go, so I went off by myself and didn’t phone once’), rather than sitting in a basement.
Those who have been abducted in Chechnya and finally released after a few days, weeks or months for some reason or another – a ransom payment or the scandal created – are, as a rule, persuaded to tell this sort of story. They tell it. And sign their names to it. They are afraid – for themselves, for their families, because what will happen if they so much as whisper a word to anyone has been explained in detail to them. And – most importantly – they already know what it will feel like…But Islam wanted to talk, and the Mobile Group suggested hiding him in a safe place with his closest relatives, if he – despite the threats of the security service officials – would recount the truth to the investigator.
Since the spring of 2009 the Joint Mobile Group has, to all intents and purposes, taken responsibility for Islam and his family. They are lodged in a safe house under guard in the little village of X in central Russia, which is the only way of keeping them safe. For a long time the investigation got nowhere. The investigator responsible for it in Chechnya unambiguously explained to the lawyers that he did not intend to interrogate the OMON officers: not only would they not turn up to be questioned, they would lie in wait for him and beat him up. The lawyers should understand his position – he was scared, as anyone in his situation would be. International organisations got involved in the case. There was a fuss in the press. Finally, after many months of effort, the inquiry was transferred from Chechnya to a federal investigator, Colonel Sobol, who was also, incidentally, working on the case of Natasha Estemirova.
One can’t say that Sobol was able to do much to clarify the murder of Natasha Estimirova – the most important current official version about militants being responsible for the crime is extremely unconvincing, and it is simply not known what precise steps were taken to check the possible involvement of the Chechen authorities.
But he was serious about the Umarpashaev case. Despite serious obstacles and threats from local security service officials, Sobol inspected the OMON base where Islam had been held in Grozny, accompanied by him and the Joint Mobile Group. He began to summon specific individual OMON officers in for questioning and identification. But they failed to respond to the summons to interrogation and it became clear that Colonel Sobol could do nothing to force rank and file members of OMON to cooperate with the investigation.
A step forward?
The Mobile Group, hoping that publicity would nudge the investigation along, communicated continuously with journalists, arranging interviews with Islam Umarpashaev for them. Publications increased, but didn’t bring results. But at the beginning of October this year an NTV correspondent, Nikolai Kovalkov, approached the head of the Joint Mobile Group Igor Kalyapin with the proposal that he, Kovalkov, should film a piece about Umarpashaev for the daily programme ‘Central Television’. Naturally Kalyapin agreed.
That a federal television channel was prepared to publicise the case of Umarpashaev and other kidnap victims in Kadyrov’s Chechnya seemed unbelievably lucky – almost a miracle.
If it was shown on NTV prime time to a million viewers it meant that something would change, that there was hope for a normal investigation.
Journalists from NTV interviewed Islam Umarpashaev and his relatives in that same secret little house somewhere in central Russia. They went to Chechnya to film the work of Kalyapin and other members of the Joint Mobile Group. They also risked talking to representatives of the Chechen security services involved in the case of Umarpashaev. They interviewed Sobol’s senior investigator in Essentuki – as it happens on 13 October, the very day that court proceedings brought against him by Kalyapin for negligence came to an end there (Kalyapin lost the case).
The piece was to go out on 16 October. It didn’t. The authors informed Kalyapin that they had been told to include a comment on the material from some high up official, but there was a problem. Two more weeks passed. The piece was finally cleared for broadcast on 30 October; they warned Kalyapin that it might be pulled after being shown in the Far East, because that happens with controversial material.
The material was shown in the eastern regions. Then Kalyapin received a text message from one of the journalists: the piece had been pulled, but viewers in Moscow and European Russia would notice, because the resulting hole in the programme was big – around ten minutes long – and at such short notice there was nothing to fill it with except adverts. The correspondent added that the material had already been posted on the internet, so could be downloaded and posted on other social networking sites. ‘We lost’, he explained, but that didn’t mean that they couldn’t do anything further.
TV channel justifications
Well, they lost…but strangely enough, they ended up winning. Because if – after a wave of incensed publications – NTV doesn’t show the piece in other regions soon, in the end it will have been closely watched by even more people than the Sunday broadcast.
When the fuss about pulling the ‘Chechen material’ had peaked, comments by the NTV press secretary provoked a new wave of anger in the press. Maria Bezborodova said ‘the piece really was shown in the Far East, after which the management [of the TV company] took the decision to send it for revision, verification and elaboration of facts, basically a fairly common practice in editorial news work’.
It was possibly the suggestion that this was ‘common practice’ that brought about the further media scandal. In recent years people have had more than enough of this practice. They’ve had so much of it that they are beginning to choke on it. The TV channel management could hardly have had any real concerns about the material, since it had been broadcast in the Far East and the Urals. Or are standards of objectivity and accuracy lower in the eastern than the western part of the country? Of course not. The truth was clear to everyone.
I have been working in Chechnya for many years, and the people abducted by the security forces – first federal forces, then Kadyrov’s – are burnt into my subcortex. The same is true of anyone who has questioned hundreds of mothers whose sons have been taken from home by men in camouflage. Taken nowhere. More than three thousand have ‘disappeared’ since the beginning of the second Chechen war.
Parents, who for years seek their children, are prepared to give anything for a crumb of information, for bones that they might bury.
It is unbearable. And it is unbearable to spend years witnessing others’ tears and to know that you can do nothing.
This spring, together with colleagues from Memorial, the Moscow Helsinki Group and the Committee against Torture, I signed an appeal to President Medvedev. In it we cited official letters from the Investigating Committee of the RF Public Prosecutor’s Office for Chechnya and the Chechnya Public Prosecutor’s Office, in which these state structures directly responsible for the investigation acknowledge their complete helplessness in everything relating to kidnap victims in Chechnya. The Investigating Committee cited sabotage on the part of members of the Chechen security forces, who will not obey any order and do not appear for questioning. The Office of the Public Prosecutor, in turn, contends that the investigators themselves frequently cover up for criminals, so ‘as a result of the delayed institution of criminal proceedings and the passivity and inertness of the investigation, the guilty individuals abscond and the location of the victims is not established.’
We asked Dmitry Anatolevich Medvedev to intervene in this situation personally so as to ensure that very ‘rule of law’, the necessity for which he has spoken about a number of times over more than three years in the president’s seat. No intelligibleresponse to our appeal followed.
And no measures were taken by the federal centre.
The piece, taken off air by NTV last Sunday as part of their ‘common practice’, was built around Umarpashaev’s case, but at the very start viewers see other inhabitants of Chechnya who are working with the Mobile Group. Their children have disappeared. Each of them says literally a few words about their abducted son and asks for help. For these people, Islam Umarpashaev is lucky. Yes, he was tortured. Yes, he sat in a basement for four months. No, he can’t go home, can’t freely walk the streets, work, live a normal life. Any day he could be found and killed. But right now he is alive. And his parents are with him. Are their sons alive? And if they are alive, what if they are so tortured that even death would be a blessing?
I see the publications on the piece pulled from NTV, and rejoice that tolerance of censorship is now breaking down precisely over this topic, and that those who yesterday were unconcerned with Chechnya are today scrutinizing every aspect of Umarpashaev’s case. I rejoice because perhaps, as a result of this, something will change. Something, at least, has to change.