The fallout from the murderous rampage against Charlie Hebdo spilled over the North Caucuses and Moscow on Friday. The leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, threatened Radio Echo of Moscow after it ran a poll, asking its listeners whether media, in reaction to Wednesday’s murders of the Charlie Hebdo journalists, should publish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. A majority of Echo’s listeners, 68 percent, said “yes,” the cartoons should be published and 30 percent said “no.”
Less than an hour later, Kadyrov posted on Twitter that that Echo’s editor-in-chief, Aleksei Venediktov, had insulted Muslims and said, “There are those who will bring Venediktov to account.”
“Venediktov has long ago converted Echo of Moscow into the main anti-Islamic horn,” Kadyrov wrote next to his own portrait, which shows him pointing at the sky, muscles bulging, and rings on his fingers. If authorities did not restrict the radio that “incites animosity and hatred among people and nations,” Kadyrov went on, “There will be people to make Venediktov responsible.” A dangerous statement in the country where a number of journalists, including Anna Politkovskaya and Natalya Estemirova, have been assassinated by Chechen nationals.
That is not the first death threat Venediktov has received in his 25 years at Echo. One morning in 2009, the radio’s editor opened the door of his apartment and saw a block of wood with an ax sticking out of it. Since then, Venediktov does not walk around without security. But who can protect Echo’s more than 100 employees?
One of Russia’s most shameful statistics is the number of journalists assassinated for their work. “The Anatomy of Injustice,” a report from the Committee to Project Journalist, described the unsolved slayings of 17 journalists in Russia since 2000. They were killed, the CPJ said, because of their work.
Venediktov and his reporters responded to Kadyrov’s threat by donning white T-shirts with “Je suis Charlie,” and said that Echo’s reporting was balanced, professional and representative for various religious and political groups.
But clearly, balanced and professional were not the approach the Chechen leader had been using lately. Kadyrov began his Friday morning by tweeting a picture of himself in a black uniform speaking before a group of Muslims. In the caption, Kadyrov declared the former boss of Yukos Oil Company his “personal enemy” and “enemy of all Muslims” for calling on media to publish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. Kadyrov said that in Europe, where Khodorkovsky currently lives, there would be people able to call the oilman to account.
Last month, also on Twitter, Kadyrov promised to burn the houses of the families of terrorists without any investigation. At his annual press conference, Putin was asked what he thought of these calls for violence. “Nobody, including the leader of Chechnya, has the right to engage in extrajudicial reprisals,” Putin said about his loyal appointee, Kadyrov, also known in Chechnya as Imam Ramzan.
Cartoons mocking religious symbols are nothing unusual for Russia, where anti-religious propaganda was official policy in the Soviet Union for decades. Magazines and newspapers regularly published caricatures of Jehovah, Jesus Christ, and Allah. But things have changed in the past two decades in Russia, a country with about 20 million Muslims.
The calls to re-publish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad split the Russian journalistic community. Dmitry Muratov, editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, one of the few independent newspapers left in Russia, wrote: “I have doubts that this decision (to republish) would be ethically correct. It looks like a collective punishment: a group of murderers committed a terrorist attack and we try millions of believers. I think one of the terrorists’ agendas is to provoke a fateful conflict, a collision of different beliefs.” Nevertheless, Novaya Gazeta republished the last cover of Charlie Hebdo featuring a generic Muslim passionately kissing on the lips a man with a pencil behind his ear.
Kadyrov and other North Caucuses leaders threatening journalists in Russia should realize that they live in civic society and obey the law and “if they don’t like that, they should go live in a monastery or leave for a religious state,” a prominent Russian journalist, Ksenia Sobchak, said on Echo of Moscow. Meanwhile, crowds of Russians came out on a freezing day to put flowers and express their support and respect for the 12 victims of Wednesday’s terrorist attack. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he would travel to Paris to join an anti-terror march on Sunday.