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Russian journalist Irina Gordienko of Novaïa Gazeta is in Paris as one of the nominees in the Gala des Outs d’Or, organized by the Association of LGBT journalists (AJL).
Gordienko is among the personalities nominated for the Foreign Press Award for her coverage in Novaïa Gazeta of anti-gay repression in Chechnya in the first quarter of this year. Novaïa Gazeta was this independent newspaper that first reported the arrest, torture and sometimes murder of homosexuals or men considered as such.
Gordienko spoke with us about how she and her colleagues conducted the investigation, what happened to the men arrested and tortured, and how the Russian and Chechen authorities responded to the international mobilization.
Irina, how long have you been working for Novaïa Gazeta?
I’ve worked for Novaïa Gazeta for 15 years. I work a lot on local conflicts in the Caucasus.
What is Novaïa Gazeta’s place in the Russian media landscape?
We are a national newspaper publishing an edition three times a week since 1992. We cover politics, social, economic topics and we are seen as liberal. We also cover abuses of human rights.
Has your work been made more difficult since Vladimir Putin came to power?
No, I would not say it’s changed. We are not confronted with censorship. No one tells us what to write or not to write. Our editor-in-chief and the journalists themselves decide what they should do. The authorities and the president may change, but our editorial policy does not change.
When did you hear about anti-gay repression in Chechnya for the first time?
We started hearing about it at the beginning of March, but the repression started around the 20th of February. One of my colleagues took the testimony of a local law enforcement officer. Then there was another testimony, then another. We thought something was going on. We started to do research and we heard testimony from victims who experienced this repression. It was on the basis of these testimonies and investigations that we published a first article on April 1.
Is this the first time that such repression has taken place in Chechnya against gays?
There had never been a repression of such magnitude before, just based on being gay or even being suspected of being gay. It hadn’t happened in Chechnya or in other parts of Russia, even in very conservative areas.
Do you have an explanation of why this happened now?
My explanation is that local authorities in Chechnya are carrying out a policy of systematic, dictatorial repression and are trying to suppress all people who are different. It’s a bit like in North Korea. All the social groups that Kadyrov and his entourage do not like are repressed without reason. It all started by accident.
What do you mean by accident?
A man was arrested under the influence of a light drug. The police began to interrogate him to find out where he found the drug and he gave the name of the person who provided it. This man was also arrested, the police searched his phone, there were contacts of men and pornographic photos. The police began to arrest the men in his phone. They were taken to detention centers and sometimes tortured. The police asked each man to denounce eight or 10 people to be released.
Some Western media have referred to “concentration camps for homosexuals”. Was that justified in your opinion?
I do not agree with this qualification, it is a mistake and an exaggeration. There are secret prisons in Chechnya in Kadirov, but they are not concentration camps. People are detained for months, sometimes years without charge and without trial. Their relatives do not even know where they are, they are tortured but there are not only gays, they are all the people that the authorities suspect.
What do you think of the reaction of the Russian authorities who first rejected these accusations?
The Russian authorities have accused us of giving no name, which is true. But we could not reveal the identity of the victims, because even though these men have left Chechnya and Russia, they have many relatives in Chechnya and they can be threatened or manipulated by Chechen authorities and society. They had no choice but to leave. The Russian authorities have long continued to say that this was wrong and that we had invented this story in order to better criticize this “poor” Chechnya.
We then organized a meeting between people who had been victims of this repression and a Russian official responsible for human rights. The meeting was kept secret. This person actually spoke with them and he then informed Vladimir Putin. The Russian authorities therefore knew that it was true, that we have invented nothing.
We tried to persuade the Russian authorities to open a criminal investigation about the torture. We also have the names of those who died after these arrests, most of the time they were probably killed by their relatives. A procedure began with a very experienced investigator. The facts have been confirmed but for the time being the criminal investigation has not started.
The Chechen authorities are doing their utmost to try to sabotage the investigation and it is very difficult. But of course, the main requirement to open this criminal investigation will be a political decision. That is, if the Kremlin gives the go-ahead.
Did the Russian media talk about this tragic topic?
No, not in the official newspapers. We have some national media but most are owned by entrepreneurs close to the Kremlin so they can not criticize the authorities. But on the Internet, there are some independent media that have talked about it.
How did you react to the global media reaction to this crackdown?
We were surprised. Our journalists have been dealing with torture and human rights abuses in Chechnya and the Caucasus for decades, but it no longer interested the public. We did not think it would become such a scandal but if it can help the victims, so much the better. In the western countries, politicians at the highest level have talked a lot about this repression, that it was horrible, that it was outrageous, but I see that it is always very complicated because the international bureaucrats are everywhere and are the same! The visa procedures were not easy! We also met with diplomats. Today, the procedure for obtaining visas has improved and we are very pleased.