The risks for journalists reporting on Chechnya are never far from Elena Milashina’s mind. Her colleague, Anna Politkovskaya, was murdered in 2006 covering the same region.
Milashina, who works for the renowned independent Russian news outlet Novaya Gazeta, has herself been physically attacked while reporting on the southwestern Russian republic. She’s received death threats, including from Chechnya’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov.
Her work often focuses on Kadyrov’s policies. The region was in a war of independence for years before Russian President Vladimir Putin forged an alliance with powerful Chechen clans under Kadyrov’s father, Akhmad, who was later assassinated.
Since taking power, Ramzan Kadyrov, who is under U.S. sanctions for human rights abuses, has made it clear that independent journalism is not welcome in the region. He has also dismissed allegations of rights abuses as a “myth” to destabilize his region.
Last month, Milashina was awarded the 2020 courage award by media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF). She told Voice of America she has no plans to quit reporting.
The investigative journalist covers a range of rights abuses, including the persecution of gays, and the abduction, torture and disappearance of local bloggers and dissidents.
She has reported on whole families forced out of Chechnya under collective punishment practices, as well as cases of public shaming in which victims are forced to harm themselves while the acts are recorded and later shared via their social media accounts.
Following are excerpts from a VOA interview with Milashina after the announcement of her RSF honors. The questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.
VOA: Novaya Gazeta is independent from the state. Why is that so important and how does it affect the way in which the Russian government treats you?
Milashina: Most of the media in Russia are either affiliated with the state via their owners, who are usually oligarchs, or are directly owned or financed by the state, in which case it’s no longer journalism but propaganda, and propaganda is always a lie. Only a few independent, professional media are left in Russia.
The authorities, those whom I criticize like in Chechnya, they don’t like me, of course. On the other hand, they also respect me for being a journalist, doing an honest job and not producing propaganda. They know that if I have published something in Novaya Gazeta, then it is true. They might loudly express outrage that it has been published, but can they debunk it? No.
VOA: How do authorities react when you report on something they don’t like?
Milashina: Their dislike of me and my work manifests in constant public criticism and threats. I have been attacked physically several times. As for the threats — there are so many, even from the Chechen authorities alone, that I simply stopped counting.
Such crimes, not only against me but in general, are never investigated, and there are a lot of similar crimes committed against journalists in Russia. Intimidation, threats, physical attacks, beatings, even murders — all these crimes skip justice.
VOA: The Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov has made several threats against you, but still you travel there for work. Why?
Milashina: Chechnya is a region of Russia where I have to work. I told authorities there the only reason I started working in the region is because of the assassination of my colleagues Anna Politkovskaya and Natalia Estemirova. [Editor’s note: Estemirova is a human rights activist who was killed in 2009.]
When the state does not protect journalists, does not support the constitutional right of freedom of speech, then the only defense is to continue the work of colleagues who were killed or gave up due to intimidation. That is the only defense against those who believe the use of force can put a lock on information, or who think they can silence a journalist by physical violence.
Those people must realize that if one journalist is murdered, another will replace her.
I have no personal feelings toward Kadyrov because, while he undoubtedly plays a huge role in what is happening in Chechnya, any other person in his place would have been doing the same things, and I would have been criticizing that person. There is nothing more serious than the abductions, torture, murders, extrajudicial executions taking place there.
[Kadyrov’s threats] happened repeatedly. The last time it was very direct, saying that if the federal government won’t halt Novaya Gazeta and my work in Chechnya, then he’ll find a person who, I guess, would kill me.
But I repeat – such a “solution” is futile: If Kadyrov is gone, somebody will replace him; if Milashina is gone, somebody will replace her, and the cycle will continue. While Novaya Gazeta exists, there will be a journalist reporting on Chechnya. It will remain one of the main topics for Novaya, because Politkovskaya was murdered, because Estemirova was murdered.
VOA: Do these threats scare you?
Milashina: I understand the risks. After my colleagues’ murders, I know the measures that could be taken against me. I guess my fear limit is higher than what’s considered normal, because these attacks, including physical violence, don’t stop me. I continue my work. Yet I calculate the danger, the risks. I try inventing security protocols for the unique situation I have to work in.
It is very important to maintain contacts with the region, with the people, who over the years developed a level of trust with me because they know I put the safety of my sources above everything in my work.
VOA: How is it possible to guarantee the security and anonymity of sources in an environment notorious for round-the-clock surveillance?
Milashina: When your absolute priority is not getting the story out, but the safety of your sources, then you always find ways to protect them. I know this sounds odd coming from a journalist, but in the environment where I work, there is no question where I fall on the scale of lives of people versus breaking a story.
I know with absolute certainty that if the state in Chechnya learned about my contacts that knowledge would result in a brutal murder and nobody will be punished for it.
VOA: Is there a story that will stay with you forever?
Milashina: I’m not a journalist who comes in, writes a story and forgets about it right away. I work for years on some stories. But I feel emotionally exhausted, like nothing is left in me. I love my country, Russia, very much. I love Chechnya very much. But my job is investigative journalism, which means that my stories will always unveil something, will always be critical.
At this point, I have stopped writing about Chechens, because such a story makes its hero immediately a target for the authorities. Instead, I write pieces that show the scope of problem. Courage is a very rare virtue in Chechnya today, in Russia as well, but courage is what I value the most in the people I write about.