Co-founder and former head of Novaya Gazeta, Dmitry Muratov, foreground, and the Ekho Moskvy (Echo of Moscow) radio station's…
FILE - Dmitry Muratov, foreground, chief editor of Novaya Gazeta, and the Ekho Moskvy (Echo of Moscow) radio station's editor-in-chief, Alexei Venediktov, speak in Moscow, Russia, in June 2019.

Former rebel fighter-turned-president Ramzan Kadyrov has made it clear that independent journalism will not be tolerated in Chechnya: a message that appears to come with the Kremlin’s blessing.

Irritated at criticism of his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kadyrov in mid-April threatened Novaya Gazeta, one of Russia’s few remaining independent media outlets that still covers Chechnya, and its reporter Elena Milashina.

“If you want us to commit a crime and become criminals, then just say so. Someone will take on this burden, responsibility, and will be punished according to the law, serve time in prison and be released,” Kadyrov said in comments shared on social media.

It wasn’t the first time Novaya Gazeta or Milashina have been threatened. In February, Milashina was beaten while in Grozny, and both she and her colleagues have been threatened repeatedly. Six of the paper’s journalists have been killed because of their work, including prominent reporter Anna Politkovskaya, who was murdered in 2006.

But Kadyrov’s latest threat still shocked the paper’s editor and sparked a wave of condemnation, with the U.S. Helsinki Commission, the European Union and the Council of Europe, and international human rights organizations demanding that Moscow take action and offer protection to Novaya Gazeta and Milashina.

The Kremlin’s response was to dismiss the threat as “nothing unusual.”

“There is nothing forbidden or illegal in this,” Kremlin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on April 16, adding that the Kremlin did not consider it necessary to publicly respond to Kadyrov’s threats against Novaya Gazeta or to provide state protection for Milashina.

Russia’s media regulator Roskomnadzor also ordered Novaya Gazeta to remove the article. The news website complied.

Chechnya: History of media violence

The Kremlin assessment that this was “nothing unusual” is close to the truth.

Kadyrov, who fought against the Russian army at age 18, has ruled the autonomous republic for 13 years. From the start, his government has harassed journalists and human rights activists. And his critics have been attacked, publicly humiliated or even killed.

In 2015, Chechen blogger Adam Dikayev criticized Kadyrov for working out in his gym while the song “My best friend is President Putin” played. A few days later Dikayev appeared in a video shared on social media. The blogger was on a treadmill, half-naked and apologizing for his comments.

Five years later, residents of Chechnya rarely risk discussing their leadership on social media, and the few journalists who travel to the republic for work can face violence.

More recently, in February attackers beat Milashina and lawyer Marina Dubrovina in the capital, Grozny.

They were in the city to report on a lawsuit filed against Chechen vlogger Islam Nukhanov, who used YouTube videos to discuss the luxurious lifestyle of Kadyrov’s relatives and inner circle.

The attackers filmed their actions, Milashina said, to report back to those who ordered the attack.

The journalist reported the attack to police, who said they were investigating.

Quitting not an option

The threats and attack were nothing new for Milashina, who leads Novaya Gazeta’s special projects unit.

In 2017, when Novaya Gazeta released her investigation into Chechnya’s repression of the LGBT community, she had to leave Russia because of threats.

Milashina told VOA that the only way to ensure the safety of journalists is with solidarity of the media.

“Extreme measures taken against journalists, when you kill them, lead to emergence of another journalist, who would keep doing the same,” she said. “The only protection for journalists amid the inaction of authorities is to keep working. Only this would protect us, nothing else would.”

Milashina, who has been awarded several prizes, including the U.S. State Department’s International Women of Courage Award, said she has moments of despair.

“I have already given up a thousand times, because, frankly, I rarely can boast of any successes there -- when I manage to save someone, get someone out [of prison].”

She said she did not expect the Russian government to protect her from Kadyrov, because the Kremlin has given the Chechen leader free rein.

“Kadyrov is efficient from the Kremlin’s point of view. The Kremlin needs Chechnya to be suppressed, with people who are afraid of [authorities],” she said. “Of course, they handed him a blank check to act with locals without limitations, and neither security forces nor authorities would be punished for overreaching.”

Milashina ruled out the possibility of stopping reporting on Chechnya, saying, “Can I abandon the region where 1.5 million people live, who actually do not have a chance to be heard? This is not an option.”

Coverage of Chechnya will continue

Milashina is not the first Novaya Gazeta staff member to be attacked or threatened for their work.

Dmitry Muratov, the paper’s editor-in-chief, still remembers Politkovskaya, who covered human rights violations and the Chechen war.

In 2006, Politkovskaya was found shot dead in her Moscow apartment building. Six people have been convicted for their role in her murder.

Muratov said he was surprised by the bluntness of Kadyrov’s latest threats.

“Like everyone, I was surprised by the frankness, utter sincerity he described with the algorithm we already know about: ‘We’ll kill her, serve some time in jail, having it on our conscience,’ ” he told VOA.

“Of course, I was surprised. Still, he is a civil servant, moreover, police general and the head of the region, and he allows himself to say such things,” Muratov said.

Muratov noted the willingness of some Chechen authorities to mitigate the attack on the newspaper.

“I told Kadyrov’s spokesman that they have the right to answer: the party that felt hurt or unfairly accused of anything has this right even in pre-trial order. And two or three days later, we received a letter from them that we published. I would very much like to consider the conflict settled on this.”

He ruled out stopping coverage of the region.

“Since Chechnya is the territory of the Russian Federation, and we are a federal media and work throughout Russia, we naturally will continue to cover Chechnya,” he said.

'Totalitarian enclave in authoritarian country'

Sometimes, as in the case of the trial of Oyub Titiev, head of the Chechen branch of the Memorial Human Rights Center, attention is so great that authorities do not impede the work of journalists.

Dozens of visiting journalists were allowed into the Titiev trial; TV cameras stood in a line at the Grozny City Hotel.

But it was an isolated case. Kadyrov has declared journalists and human rights defenders to be enemies of the nation, Tatyana Lokshina, program director for Russia at Human Rights Watch, said.

“Many people remember Kadyrov’s public statements, that the republic will be closed for the human rights defenders after the Titiev trial is over,” she said. “And by ‘human rights defenders’ he also meant all those journalists who are not personally loyal to him.”

Lokshina said that in Chechnya, “the concept of freedom of the press does not apply.” She added, “A totalitarian enclave in an authoritarian country.”

“In terms of human rights, Chechnya flouts international law, as well as the Russian constitution. There’s only one law, notoriously known as ‘Ramzan said so,’ ” Lokshina said.

Cruel but populist leader

Russian President Vladimir Putin installed Kadyrov, son of assassinated leader Akhmad Kadyrov, as president of Chechnya in 2007. Under his presidency, the region has been relatively stable after two brutal wars, but rights groups have criticized him for serious human rights abuses.

Kadyrov is rarely interviewed by Western media. But Gregory Feifer, executive director of the Institute of Current World Affairs in Washington and a former correspondent for RFE/RL, had a chance to interview the leader in 2009.

[Editor’s note: Reporter Danila Galperovich, who wrote this story, and Feifer interviewed Kadyrov for RFE/RL in 2009.]

“When we recorded the interview with him, not even a month had passed after the murder of Natalya Estemirova, human rights activist. The whole atmosphere of this interview was surreal: after many hours of waiting for the interview, it was scheduled for 2 a.m., and it took place in his huge residence with a personal zoo,” Feifer told VOA.

“Kadyrov played pool when we entered his palace and behaved like a frat boy — he sang and cheered himself up with screams. In general, he behaved quite eccentrically, as a person who is slightly out of his mind or prone to emotional outbursts,” Feifer said.

He added that Kadyrov demands loyalty from everyone, but also talks about concerns for his people and said in the interview that he had to live in a mansion for security reasons.

“Kadyrov is openly cruel, inhuman, and at the same time he is a populist leader. There is much talk that Kadyrov ‘won the Chechen war,’ that he receives money from Moscow, while de facto having real independence from Moscow in exchange for loyalty to Putin. This is partly true, but this is not a problem for Putin. In fact, this is what Putin wants,” Feifer said.

However, the more that human rights are violated in Chechnya, the more attention is drawn to Kadyrov from the international community.

Since 2013, the U.S. Treasury has imposed sanctions under the Magnitsky Act on Kadyrov and 11 others for human rights violations in the region. The act penalizes human rights abusers by freezing their assets and blocking them from entering or doing business in the U.S.

Recently, U.S. lawmakers called on the State Department to remind Middle East countries with ties to Kadyrov that these links could be subject to U.S. sanctions.

U.S. Representative Tom Malinowski, who initiated this appeal, told VOA, “The signal to President Putin should be the following: If you act alongside this man, if you use him, then you become an accomplice.”

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misattributed part of a quote — “a totalitarian enclave in an authoritarian country” — to Dmitry Muratov. The article has been updated to attribute the quote to Tatyana Lokshina. VOA regrets the error.

This story originated in VOA's Russian service.