By Jared Feldschreiber
On her Facebook page, reporter Oksana Chelysheva has an image of a rose bush blooming with large white flowers in the middle of a harsh, snowy winter. For her, the photo serves as daily inspiration that she can persevere no matter the hardship and continue to help truth flourish in Putin's Russia.
“I took this picture in November, 2011 when all the flowers were dead,” Chelysheva says. “Only this rose bush was blossoming despite the snow … the cold and the snow was the symbol that the impossible can be easily accomplished if there is effort.”
A colleague and friend of slain journalist Anna Politkovskaya, the auburn-haired Chelysheva has devoted her life to telling the stories of the disenfranchised. She desperately wants to be an objective voice, but as Putin clamps down on free speech her work increasingly edges toward anti-government activism. She adamantly rejects the label “activist." Yet, in today's Russia where revealing the facts can undermine the government, Chelysheva is on the front lines of reform. Living under Putin’s government, it is now impossible to be an objective journalist.
“I just do what I have to do, what is right to do, what I am capable of, and what I have energy for,” she says. She has gained the trust of her subjects, many of whom are political prisoners and dissidents. “My main protagonists are people in need, or people who have done something to overcome their circumstances.”
Her attempts to give voice to the forgotten blur the line between activism and journalism. A journalist has an obligation to give an unvarnished reporting of events, without sentimentality or emotion. Yet Chelysheva may be likened to Politkovskaya who was often accused of depicting Russia as an aggressive and hostile country, particularly during the Second Chechen War. In the eyes of many Russian officials, and even fellow journalists, Politkovskaya depicted Chechens too sympathetically. Chelysheva has found it similarly impossible to stay fully neutral, particularly since just talking to her subjects—often political prisoners and dissidents—can put her in danger of angering an increasingly nervous government. Simply by protecting themselves in their pursuit of facts, journalists are increasingly pitting themselves against the Russian government.
Chelysheva’s love of storytelling goes back to her early days as a youth when she “was a great entertainer of schoolmates, retelling stories from the books—like Sherlock Holmes or Captain Nemo,” she recalls. “Then I came to work to the university, which I did enjoy. But within 10 years of my work there, the atmosphere was changing for the worse.” Russians in the 1990s saw an optimistic and nascent democracy transformed into a dysfunctional and corrupt political system. Oligarchs exploited the end of the Soviet system for personal enrichment, paving the way for the current disintegration of the democratic experiment.
Chelysheva was devoted to journalism but had not yet made the jump into activism. One event changed that. In 2004, the 58th Army, the Special Forces, the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB), and Russian police laid siege to a school in Beslan filled with over 1,100 hostages taken by Chechen separatists. The government's botched rescue attempt left 331 people dead, including 186 children.
During the standoff, Chelysheva was informed that her friend and fellow journalist Politkovskaya had been poisoned on her way to Beslan. Chelysheva acted quickly. “I just called one of the leading people of the Chechen resistance—Akhmed Zakaev—and then interviewed him. I just dialed [his] number … as soon as I learned from Moscow that Anna was in a coma being poisoned. I was demanding to do something real to prove [the Chechens’] readiness to start peace talks.” Chelysheva tried to facilitate some sort of peace negotiations between the sides by publishing her interview with Zakaev, which she did the following day. In the interview, "he condemned terrorism," she says. She also contacted the Minister of Foreign Affairs Ilyas Akhmadov, who had been in exile. To the Russians, these were two vilified men. Chelysheva's hopes were to jumpstart peaceful negotiations. She could not just sit idly by and merely report on the tragedy at the Beslan school.
“Before that [tragedy], I had tried to be impartial in reporting the facts,” Chelysheva says. “But when I learned about the children, about Anna being poisoned … when I realized the level of approaching tragedy, I made up my mind. … I called to demand that all previous statements about adherence to peace negotiations are not just words. I demanded that they do something to prove that they do want peace. … If I had not done something to save the hostages, I would quit my work as a journalist, because I would not be able to sleep peacefully knowing there was one chance to save [these] people.”
Chelysheva continues to marry journalism with activism. She was editor of the Russian Chechen Information Agency, part of the Russian Chechen Friendship Society, an NGO based in Finland that monitors human rights violations in Chechnya and other parts of the North Caucasus.
Denis Bilunov, a staunch Putin critic and a founding member of the December 5 Party whose name derives from anti-government rallies in Moscow in late 2011, says that he has seen the double role of journalist and activist help Chelysheva avoid immediate arrest. “I was alone watching police troops advancing against a group of protesters. They got the activists in one or two minutes, and I noticed a woman among the journalists, who was trying to call some international human rights entity. That was Oksana.”
Miranda Patrucic, a reporter at the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project based in Sarajevo, acknowledges that “no country has 100 percent impartial journalism.” But reporting on Russia or in the Balkans put journalists in special danger. “Threats come in the form of warnings like, ‘watch out, you are doing a dangerous job,” she says. “Sometimes you get a phone call saying drop it or you'll be killed, and sometimes you just get beaten.”
Investigative reporting is vital to any democracy. Newspapers like Novaya Gazeta, where Chelysheva sometimes contributes, are still open in Russia but remain under threat of closure. Having a media that is not state-sponsored would be an important step for Russia. The protection of journalists also needs to be continually highlighted by NGOs, supranational organizations, and by journalists.
Putin views journalists with the utmost suspicion, and in turn, many journalists see him as a ruthless former KGB officer who has installed a draconian system. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 77 journalists in Russia have been killed since 1992. About a third of these murders were labeled as having an unconfirmed motive. In addition to Politkovskaya, prominent journalists like Natalya Esterimova, Anastasiya Buburova, Ivan Safronov, and Gadzhimurad Kamalov have been killed under suspicious circumstances. Chelysheva, meanwhile, still has her eyes focused on uncovering the truth under an increasingly authoritarian regime. "The best practice is to continue to speak the truth," she says. "It is difficult, but not so much if you know what the truth is.” Her sense of optimism fits with her Facebook photo of the white rose, symbolizing endurance in a harsh environment.