Zurab Markhiev: Undercover Journalist in Ingushetia
When the Second Russian-Chechen War started in 1999, Zurab Markhiev was living in Grozny. Like many others he fled to neighboring Ingushetia where he lived for a while in a refugee camp and often helped foreign journalists as a guide in Chechnya. As someone who grew up in Grozny he knew every corner of the city. It was then that Markhiev decided to become a journalist.
I hired him for the Regnum News Agency as a reporter in Ingushetia in 2006. He worked under the pseudonym of “Amin Polonkoev”. His reports were very factual, detailed and timely. Ingushetia’s government wasn’t happy with the work of “Polonkoev”. The president’s spokesman demanded that I reveal his identity, which I refused. In less than a month the security services discovered Markhiev’s true identity. Four officers of the Russian Federal Security Services (FSB) abducted him in Nazran. Despite our best efforts, his relatives and I were only able to confirm the fact that masked men had kidnapped him.
Markhiev was released after 18 hours. He told me that he was forced to choose between death or collaboration. He had signed a contract of collaboration and silence with the FSB. He was assigned to report only what was approved by his FSB supervisor, whom he was obliged to meet once a week. Markhiev managed to work for almost another three years as ‘Amin Polonkoev’, dealing with FSB-approved reports and then sending out unapproved reports on the real situation under many different pseudonyms. Thanks to Markhiev’s reports many crimes committed by the state, military and security troops were exposed. But he was playing an extremely dangerous game.
In the summer of 2008, Markhiev’s friend and well-known human rights defender Zurab Tsechoev was abducted by the FSB. Markhiev’s report on the abduction prompted an intensive international response that led to Tsechoev’s release. His torture while in custody was such that he was hospitalized in Nazran for intensive therapy.
As soon as Tsechoev regained consciousness he demanded a meeting with Marhkiev. Tsechoev told Markhiev that the FSB had tortured him in order to force him to sign a testimony against Markhiev proving that he was a supporter of the rebels. Tsechoev warned him that he was most likely on the list for execution and needed to run away.
Markhiev now lives in a refugee camp in Europe waiting for his asylum application to be approved. We met at his friend’s place far from the camp as Markhiev didn’t want me to record the conditions there. Security reasons were also a factor: I didn’t want my video to be used to disclose Markhiev’s location to anyone who might still be hunting him.
Looking back on his exile and his work in Ingushetia, Markhiev says that it was the happiest time in his life: “If you are a journalist in the Caucasus you have to be a human rights defender at the same time. When information is hidden and media access is closed, it is much easier to commit a crime. If hundreds of people are killed today, perhaps if I write about the crime only 10 will be killed tomorrow.”
Although living in exile, Markhiev did not cut his ties with Ingushetia. Still using pseudonyms, he writes reports and analyses for a Prague based news agency.
September 2010 – Pulitzer Center
*This post is part of a series of reports from Fatima Tlisova’s project on the brutal censorship of journalists in the North Caucasus, that is name “Journalism and Censorship in Caucaus: Revisiting Stories Never Told“, published in advance of her upcoming feature story in the fall issue of the Nieman Reports.