Dagestan: ARTICLE 19’s interview with Biyakay Magomedov
18 Aug 20140 comments
Biyakay Magomedov, 37, is the editor and a co-founder of Chernovik, one of the few independent newspapers in Dagestan, in North Caucasus, Russian Federation. As both a journalist and an experienced lawyer, he has investigated the cases of the murdered journalists Ahmednabi Ahmednabiev (2013), Khadzhimurad Kamalov (2011) and Abdumalik Ahmedilov (2009), as highlighted in a new film ‘Journalists under Attack’ , recently released by ARTICLE 19 and its partners, the Russian Union of Journalists and the Mass Media Defence Centre.
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Magomedov is involved in the strategic protection of journalists’ rights and publishes articles about the activities of law-enforcement agencies and the judiciary in the country. As one of Russian republics most victim to pervasive violence in the past years, Dagestan has been classified as one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists and human rights defenders. In this interview, conducted by Dona Karimova from ARTICLE 19’s Europe and Central Asia Programme, Magomedov explains why this is true and gives a unique insight into the challenges, risks and dangers faced by journalists in his region.
Why is Dagestan often referred to as 'the most dangerous region' for journalists?
There have been numerous historical events — including a civil war that has now been going on for more than 10 years — which have led to the existence of 'problematic issues' that needed to be voiced.
Due to the large creative and scientific community in Dagestan — both during the USSR and after its collapse — journalism was highly developed in Dagestan, more than it was in any other post-Soviet republic. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many private independent media outlets sprung up, the main focus of which was to develop freedom of speech. This is how private media outlets and good journalism in the region came about.
However, there has been a conflict of interest in Dagestan between the authorities, who want to control everything from childbirth to funerals in the region, and the people and the society as a whole. In order to address these challenges, the authorities have used violence against journalists, which led to many deaths. This shows that the murdered journalists raised very important issues and lost their lives as a result. If they never raised these 'sensitive' issues and carried on doing what federal journalists do on TV channels on a federal level in Moscow — government propaganda — then not even one journalist would have been killed. Journalists are only killed for voicing an 'alternative opinion'!
Those journalists that died were people with very strong principles, who did not hide their position, who were impossible to bribe and who were not afraid of anything. Therefore, the only way to 'deal' with them was to kill them.
The film ‘Journalists under Attack’ highlights three cases of murdered journalists in Dagestan: Ahmednabi Ahmednabiev, Khadzhimurad Kamalov and Abdumalik Ahmedilov. Why has it taken so long to investigate these cases?
Ahmedilov was killed on 11 August 2009. For about 2-3 years after his death, the authorities searched for his murderers but with no results. The most interesting thing about this case is the fact that the people who instigated and executed Ahmedilov’s murder are known to everybody. This is the only case in Dagestan when both the family members and friends of the victim named the perpetrators straight after the killing and also presented the motive.
However, with the 'noise' that we were able to raise together with the international community — with the help of the International Union of Journalists, the Russian Union of Journalists and other organisations, including ARTICLE 19, who helped us investigate this case and raise it to an international level — the authorities were forced to re-start the search for Ahmedilov's killers.
Two of the suspects, Murat Shuaibov and Isa Abdurahmanov, were caught last year. A month ago [July 2014] the third suspect, Magomed Khazamov, was apprehended and now all of them are facing trial in a regional court in Makhachkala. During questioning, the suspects admitted to carrying out the murder and also gave a detailed explanation of how it happened — including who ordered it and the amount of money that they were paid. Furthermore, they named the instigator. But, the security services chose to hide the name of the mastermind, falsified the evidence and opened a court case only against the perpetrators of this crime. We are expecting the court's decision against the three suspects to be announced in September, and that they will receive long prison sentences for committing murder. However, due to pressure from the ‘higher powers', the mastermind has escaped criminal investigation.
If there is information regarding the mastermind, what are the challenges when it comes to pursuing these cases?
Khadzimurad Kamalov's case has not been transferred to the court yet. Khazamov and Shuaibov are also suspects in Kamalov’s murder. It was very hard to catch Khazamov, but there were publications and help from the victim’s family and friends themselves. We do not have enough information on how the investigation is going right now, but we have been told that Khazamov was the first person to shoot at Kamalov. There is a different investigative group working on this case [to that of Ahmedilov’s]. Every six months the investigators in Kamalov's case are replaced, so it is taking longer than usual. There is also another suspect that has not been caught yet — he is now outside of Russia in the United Arab Emirates.
The mastermind [behind Kamalov’s killing] is the same person who ordered Ahmedilov's murder — a deputy of the national [Dagestani] assembly. There have been publications in media about him and he [the deputy] has used legal intimidation in order to stop these publications, although we have been able to defend ourselves. Nevertheless, there is a court case in Moscow against a journalists who wrote about this person. This case is still ongoing.
What are the challenges facing those pushing for investigation into these murders?
Ali Kamalov [Head of the Dagestani Branch of the Russian Union of Journalists and Khadijmurad Kamalov’s Uncle] and other witnesses in these cases have previously been threatened by the family members of those suspected of being behind the killings. Therefore, we have real concerns for their safety, keeping in mind that many journalists who have investigated these murders have already been killed. As a result, we were forced to apply for government protection for some of the witnesses and are waiting for their response. Recently, Mukhtar Agaev, a friend of Kamalov and an important witness in his case, was killed in an apparent car bomb attack.
What is the impact on such cases, of wrongly classifying the charges (as was the case with the attempted murder of Akhmednabi Akhmednabyiev in January 2013)?
When the cases are not properly classified — i.e. not classified as attempted murder but as either hooliganism or personal injury — they are not investigated properly. Threats are not taken seriously in Dagestan. When someone receives a threat and decides to report it, the police does not open any investigation. They state that threats are not enough, and that they need for those threats to be carried out in order to start an investigation. Many people ask the police why a threat, be it a phone call, text message or verbal threat, in front of witnesses, is not a sufficient enough reason to investigate. However, this is a general tendency in Russia, whereby a criminal case does not start unless threats have been carried out — threats alone are not taken seriously.
What effect does this situation have on the freedom of expression in Dagestan and in Russia in general?
This situation creates a perfect environment for the persecution of 'unwanted' journalists. There has been a huge increase in the number of criminal cases opened using the law on defamation and extremism [against journalists and media outlets]. If this situation continues for at least two more years, I can say that there will not be any free media in Russia! The government is attacking free press on all fronts.
What is the current situation in Dagestan?
I can honestly say that the current situation in Dagestan in terms of journalists’ safety is worse than it has ever been. Why? Because, if five years ago the conflict was between the authorities and the journalistic community, now there is a war within the journalistic community itself.
Journalists who are under the influence of government propaganda are using various ways to undermine the work and credibility of decent independent journalists. They collaborate with bloggers to publish numerous articles discrediting us, the independent journalists, labelling us either as enemies of the people or as fascists. Those who dare to provide an 'alternative view' of the crisis in Ukraine are labelled as fascists, for example.
Even members of the State Duma mention in their speeches that if anyone, including journalists and human rights defenders, dares to say something about the Ukrainian crisis that is not in line with the government's position, hey will be 'eliminated'. This means that they are openly calling for the extermination of those who speak out.
How useful are films like this and who do you think should the main audience be?
We, as journalists, should not forget these cases of journalists who were killed defending freedom of speech. If we do not do something to remember them — i.e. write about them, organize events to commemorate them — who else is going to do this? If only we spoke about this day after day, reminded people of what is actually going on, then the authorities would be forced to do something about it.