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.
Caucasian Knot’s reporting is informed by Shvedov’s strongly held belief that “facts come first.” As someone who started his journalistic career with Memorial, Russia’s leading human rights organization, Shvedov respects the work of human rights groups and activists. But, he tells me, “we don’t want to be the PR of political opposition in the regions.” In an interview last year with Dutch radio, Shvedov observed that “other media consider official press releases as important, while we do in-depth reporting on disappearances and torture cases.” Caucasian Knot also strives for independent corroboration and, Shvedov tells me, “we do not have other missions or agendas.” Nor do the site’s correspondents ” have any ‘black list’ of forbidden themes or persons as most local and national media have. What we look for is the truth. I am not on the hunt for sensational material. It’s not important for us to be first. It’s important for us to get context.” Nor does he believe the role of Caucasian Knot is peacekeeping. “It’s a very harmful role for media to try to heal. Media is a scalpel in the hands of surgeons. Just one step separates it from kindling a conflict.”
The number of Caucasian Knot’s readers is growing quickly. As of December 2011, Caucasian Knot had approximately 1.8 million readers per month. The latest statistics show Russia has approximately 62 million Internet users—43 percent of the population—and broadband penetration is increasing exponentially across the country. (The site has also expanded its readership by forming partnerships with the BBC.) According to Russia’s independent public opinion Levada Center, people in the Caucasus have a remarkably high level of trust in Caucasian Knot. “Our ‘brand,’” as Shvedov puts it, “is understood by a significant number of Internet users from the Caucasus as synonymous with reliable information.”
The site is now fusing its round-the-clock reporting with social media and citizen journalism (or what some Russians call people’s journalism) to deepen its community. Citizen journalists now post comments. (Two years ago the site set up 24/7 comment-monitoring because of problems with hate speech and for fear that a new agency, the Russian Committee on Media Supervision, could strip it of its registration.) In the last month, one of Caucasian Knot’s journalists has been live-tweeting a hunger strike in Astrakhan protesting election fraud in the city’s mayoral race. Readers are encouraged to share and report on news in their towns and cities, as well as interact with others on the site. Shvedov believes that user-generated content can often be more powerful in bringing awareness to an issue of abuse or holding officials accountable. “A reader who knows nothing about conflicts in the Caucasus may watch a one-minute video and post a comment that holds an official to account or build a dialogue around an abuse that others have experienced.”
Occasionally, Caucasian Knot’s investigative reporting will break through the censorship of state owned television. Last October, for example, the state-owned NTV channel broadcast a documentary on investigations into kidnappings in Chechnya. The film borrowed exclusively from Caucasian Knot’s own material. (Without credit, Shvedov says ruefully.) It was broadcast in the Far East and in the Urals before being taken off the air.
“That is a great example, “Shvedov says, ” that even in the state-controlled media, we can get through. In the Soviet Union, it was someone reading everything before publishing. This video could only be blocked after it had been broadcast. That is important.”
Another example of how Caucasian Knot’s stories have had impact took place a few years ago when Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s troops started shooting paintball guns at Chechen girls not wearing traditional garb on Grozny’s streets. Reporting on this incident was first posted on the Knot’s site; it was then picked up by veteran reporter Pilar Bonet for the Spanish paper El País. Subsequently, the story was carried by many Russian papers, and when Kadyrov’s officials denied reports, a video made by the perpetrators themselves was found by Caucasian Knot reporters and posted on You Tube. As a result Russia’s ombudsman for human rights, Vladimir Lukin, appealed to the procurator general and an investigation was opened. The outcome is still unclear, but Caucasian Knot’s role in bringing attention to injustice was important.
Shvedov admits that there is a good measure of irony in how Caucasian Knot’s reporting is protected from local censorship. Local bosses fear that bad news in the regional press will lead national officials to reprimand or oust them. So they tend to self-censor negative news. Meanwhile, national authorities know they need independent information about developments in the region, and therefore tolerate Caucasian Knot as such a source. ”The authorities understand that if the state controls all media,” Shvedov says, “they won’t know how people actually live. If unaware, they will miss the moment when the protests start, And they certainly don’t want a revolution, like in Libya, Syria and so on. That is why the Internet is partly free.”
Shvedov is more of an ascetic (in lifestyle and in journalism) than an Internet evangelist. He doesn’t touch alcohol and seems to live on the hot tea he carries with him in a thermos. While he speaks eloquently of the importance of citizen journalists taking “personal responsibility” —for example, sharing Caucasian Knot’s material via Facebook or You Tube (and Russia’s equivalents) commenting, tweeting, he also sees important drawbacks. “Right now,” Shvedov believes, “young people in Russia are very interested in social media but they are not particularly itching to get into real journalism. The idols of today’s youth are bloggers, who occasionally attract more visitors than some of our television channels. This popularity generates substantial income for them in the form of advertising revenue. But these bloggers mostly write opinion columns—which do not offer any concrete added value. In this sense, you could say the new technology also contributes to superficiality—and, in a way, this poses a far graver threat to the freedom of the press than government oppression.”
Yet Shvedov is also keenly aware of how online media play an important role expanding limited press freedom in today’s Russia. And he knows how vital it is that journalists continue to report from the Caucasus so that the world pay attention to a region in which so many suffer from lawlessness, corruption, violence and poverty. “Lack of information and lack of interest are dangerous,” Shvedov says. While he has received support over the last few years from a range of US and Western foundations, recently, funding has been cut back just when more attention and support is needed.
Shvedov sees an opportunity in the runup to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi to show the world a more realistic, less “spruced up” side to the Caucasus region. The international media will undoubtedly devote attention to the beauty and history of the region, but Caucasian Knot will continue to report on how “Sochi’s families are forced to move to a garage in a cemetary, or into a tent, after their homes are torn down by local authorities. There are hundreds of stories like these and we are ready to tell them.’”
Nadia Azhgikina, a Russian journalist friend and executive director of Russia’s Union of Journalists, told me a few years ago, “You Americans once believed there was the Empire of Evil; now you believe there’s a land devoid of freedom where journalists are murdered.” Such stereotypes, she believes (and I agree), rarely tell the true or full story. Yes, journalists are murdered, beaten and threatened in Russia, but as Grigory Shvedov and Caucasian Knot show us, there are brave and honest journalists willing to risk life and limb, and working successfully, to ensure that independent journalism and freedom of the press survives and, perhaps, thrives.