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What's messed up about Moscow's strange response to a journalist who asked about gay men in Chechnya

Meduza
Maria Zakharova, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson
Maria Zakharova, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson
Vitaly Belousov / Sputnik / Scanpix / LETA

At a press briefing held by the Russian Foreign Ministry on May 31, Finnish reporter Erkka Mikkonen tried to ask about the situation surrounding gay men in Chechnya, where independent journalists have documented accounts of a mass police crackdown on the local LGBT community. Not for the first time, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova refused to comment on the issue, saying it was an inappropriate question to ask, insofar as she “is not a speaker on this topic.” Turning to TV cameras, Zakharova addressed Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, asking him to arrange for Mikkonen to visit Chechnya, so he could determine if indeed there are any gay people living there. Meduza breaks down this thoroughly bogus response.

Maria Zakharova offers to send a Finnish journalist to Chechnya to go look for gays. (Includes English subtitles.)
Meduza

Journalists can ask anybody about human rights violations

Maria Zakharova accused a reporter of asking her a question about an issue on which she says she “isn’t a speaker.” Technically, she’s right. The “Modern Press Service” textbook says that regular briefings at the Foreign Ministry’s press department — which Zakharova manages — are dedicated to questions about foreign policy and international relations. From a formal perspective, the persecution of gays in Chechnya is a matter of domestic policy. But these rules apply only to the ministry’s staff — not to reporters, who are free to ask whatever questions they like, especially when it comes to human rights violations. If there’s evidence that gays are being tortured and killed in a country, it’s perfectly logical that foreign journalists will try to question any official representative in that country to learn at least some new information.

Human rights violations are inherently a matter of international relations 

Whether you’re talking generally about international relations or specifically about the persecution of gays in Chechnya, human rights is an important issue. Russia is one of the world’s most powerful nations, and it’s ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which bans torture and discrimination. In May 2017, when Vladimir Putin met separately with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, both leaders directly asked Putin about human rights violations against gays in Chechnya. 

Mikkonen didn’t ask Zakharova if there are gays in Chechnya

When Zakharova turned to TV cameras and addressed Ramzan Kadyrov, she said, “Today we have with us Erkka Mikkonen, a representative of Finnish television, who’s very interested to know about the presence — or absence — of gays in Chechnya.”

But Mikkonen never asked if Chechnya has gay people, whose existence is obvious enough, given that many journalists have spent the last several months interviewing gay men who have fled the area. Mikkonen’s question was about the gay rights situation in Chechnya — about the persecution of gays, which has been documented extensively by independent reporters.

One gay man's story about fleeing Chechnya to save his life

Zakharova’s appeal to Kadyrov nearly sounds like a threat

When Zakharova asked Kadyrov to arrange a visit for Mikkonen, it’s almost as if she were trying to send him to Chechnya as punishment for asking an inconvenient question. It’s no secret, for instance, that Chechen officials respond furiously to any mention that they allegedly persecute gays. Meanwhile, Kheda Saratova, the republic’s human rights commissioner, recently said that Chechen society doesn’t condemn “even the most extreme measures” against gay people (later claiming that her words were taken out of context).

Two weeks after the newspaper Novaya Gazeta first reported on Chechnya’s mass persecution and torture of gays, Muslim clergy gathered several thousand followers at Grozny’s main mosque, and adopted a resolution promising “retribution” to the “true instigators.” Novaya Gazeta said this was a threat of violence, but Chechen officials merely shrugged it off.

It’s also noteworthy that Zakharova appealed directly to Ramzan Kadyrov, though it’s hardly his job to organize foreign journalists’ visits to Chechnya. And this is to say nothing about the way she teased Mikkonen, asking, “You’re not afraid, are you?” and winked at him.

An official visit to Chechnya wouldn’t reveal anything

In her address to Kadyrov, Zakharova said Mikkonen could “find the answers to all his questions [in Chechnya].” In fact, a journalist would be unlikely to get any answers on a press tour of Chechnya organized by local officials — especially when it comes to questions about the persecution of gays, or for that matter questions about the very existence of gays in Chechnya. The “secret prisons” reportedly used to detain gay men are a secret, after all, because the police don’t show them to journalists.

It’s difficult to know the real situation in Chechnya because the official statistics there are sometimes doctored, and it often doesn’t end well for the locals who file formal police reports. Human rights workers and journalists in Chechnya also face attacks. Not long ago, there was an attack against staff members from the “Committee Against Torture” and the reporters traveling with them. The incident itself took place in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia, but security troops reportedly began their surveillance of the group in Chechnya. In 2014, the head of the activist committee, Igor Kalyapin, appealed to the Russian Attorney General, requesting a review of Ramzan Kadyrov’s comments that the families of domestic terrorists would be expelled from Chechnya and their homes would be demolished. In response, Kadyrov accused Kalypin’s “cronies” of financing terrorists. Not long afterwards, thousands of demonstrators marched in Grozny to support Kadyrov, and Kalyapin’s office was later destroyed in a fire.

Russian text by Alexander Borzenko, translated by Kevin Rothrock