With his full red beard and pale complexion, Gregory Shvedov could be taken for a nineteenth-century Russian novelist. Yet 35-year-old Shvedov is an editor fiercely committed to independent journalism at a time when international media monitors rank Russia as among the world’s most dangerous countries for reporters.
In 2001, Shvedov founded Caucasian Knot (Kavkazkii Uzel), which since its launch in 2001 has become the leading independent source of news, in Russian and English, about the Caucasus. The site has some fifty local correspondents working in twenty locations in the conflict-ridden region—a patchwork quilt of Russian and independent republics including Chechnya, Dagestan and Azerbaijan.
Since the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, this vast and complex region has been ravaged by civil war, occupation, violence, torture, kidnappings, terrorism, corruption, rising unemployment and growing Islamic radicalism. After September 11, 2001, by aligning himself with President George W. Bush’s “global war on terror,” President Vladimir Putin was able to largely silence international criticism of Russia’s actions in the Chechen war. In these last years, there has been woefully little international coverage of the region.
Caucasian Knot therefore plays a critical role. Yet it doesn’t even have an editorial office in the Caucasus or Moscow, where Shvedov is based. It is too dangerous. Reporters who cover the Caucasus are at greater risk of being killed, beaten or threatened. In 2006, Novaya Gazeta’s Anna Politkovskaya, whose investigative reporting exposed atrocities against civilians by Chechnya’s Russian-backed authorities, was gunned down in the lobby of her Moscow apartment building. One of Caucasian Knot’s reporters was killed under suspicious circumstances in a car accident, and last year another was seriously assaulted. And on April 4, Novaya Gazeta’s investigative reporter Elena Milashina, who has reported on disappearances and torture in the North Caucacus, was brutally beaten near her Moscow apartment. Shvedov is acutely aware of the dangers his reporters faces, but he refuses to stop testing the limits of Russia’s freedom of the press.
One protection he has devised is the virtual office. Caucasian Knot’s correspondents use free Google programs so that they can be connected even as they are dispersed throughout the region. Some of the site’s reporters publish anonymously, though they are still at risk because they call government officials, ask tough questions and openly go to places where they aren’t wanted. And a virtual office hasn’t stopped the harassment. Recently Shvedov denied the Russian Interior Ministry’s request for the IP address of someone who had commented on one of the site’s articles. And there have been official attempts at online censorship via Internet attacks. At a recent conference on US-Russian journalism, Shvedov expressed concerns that after President Putin’s inauguration in May there may be “quiet, soft attempts” to censor the Internet. He does not believe they will heavy-handed because the Russian government wants to avoid China’s far more repressive model of Internet censorship.