Censorship in the Caucasus: Mikael Storsjo Hosts the Kavkaz Center
Mikael Storsjo, a prominent Swedish journalist who currently lives in Finland, is the founder of the Finnish-Chechen Association, a human rights organization that advocates for refugees and asylum-seekers from the North Caucasus.
He is also involved with another group, the Finnish-Russian Civic Forum, which organizes conferences for civil and human rights activists from all parts of Russia.
Storsjo’s office and home are often crowded with people from the Caucasus region. Some of them are refugees whom Storsjo and his wife Agnetta are sheltering. The couple holds frequent Caucasus-style parties with dozens of guests who fill their small house with noisy chatter and the smells of spiced food typical of a village in Chechnya. The women cook galnish – a special dish prepared with meat and flour, the most famous dish in Chechnya. The men do not enter the kitchen; they gather in the dining room around huge table piled high with fruits and other appetizers and talk about politics. Some of them have been living in exile since the first Russian-Chechen war more than 10 years ago. Others have just arrived. None of them can return home. This is because they (or their relatives) fought against the Russians to free Chechnya. They know that this will be not forgotten or forgiven. One unusual characteristic of these gatherings: people never laugh.
Involvement with the Chechens can sometimes bring trouble for Storsjo. In 2009 Finnish police filed a criminal case against him for harboring illegal immigrants. Storsjo says he is confident the case will be dropped because Finnish law allows citizens to help people living in inhuman conditions.
“Those whom I brought here definitely lived in inhuman conditions and many of them would be indeed dead by now if I did not help them to escape,” he said.
“I read the great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy’s novel ‘Hadji Murat’ when I was a child. The story of a free people of the Caucasus made such a deep impression on me that since then I always was interested in the situation there, eager to get to know people and traditions.”
One of Storsjo’s main interests is Internet freedom. He is a deputy chairman of the Electronic Frontier Finland – a sister organization of the international network founded in the US. Through this group, he has been able to provide web hosting and support for the Kavkaz Center, one of the most controversial internet news agencies covering the North Caucasus. The site describes itself as an independent Islamic news agency. It reports mainly on the events in Chechnya and around the Caucasus. Views and opinions expressed on the site and in Kavkaz Center’s publications are usually very critical of the Russian government.
The Kavkaz Center provides its visitors with news from the rebel side. It also posts video statements made by the leaders of mudjahedeen. Many of these statements are declarations of jihad–holy war–against Russia. Others take responsibility for the numerous bombings in different cities of Russia that have claimed dozens of civilian victims. The Center’s archives are full of gruesome pictures and videos of crimes allegedly committed by Russian federal forces.
Moscow considers the Kavkaz Center to be a terrorist propaganda website. There have been numerous attempts by Russian officials and security services to close it down. Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has sent notes of protest to the governments of 11 countries where the Kavkaz Center’s domain has been registered.
Despite the controversial and provocative nature of the Kavkaz Center, Storsjo says the internet must remain free, especially in the troubled areas where violence is the government’s common tool.
“The fact that the Russian Government does not like the website means that we do something right. We are an independent media and we don’t expect to be pleasant for the regime that commits such massive crimes against its own people,” he said.
Storsjo believes he has been targeted by the FSB, the Russian secret service, which considers him an enemy for supporting North Caucasus separatists.
“I know they are watching my every step. And they will not hesitate to kill me when ordered. I am trying to be careful, which doesn’t mean that I will give up the Kavkaz Center or the Finnish-Chechen Association. I am confident in what I do,” he said.
According to Storsjo, providing a platform for controversial opinions means supporting press freedom. With much of the mainstream media controlled either by commercial interests or the government, he believes that the Internet must be free of censorship so that it can remain a platform for the presentation of real life in real time.
28 October 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.