Ruslan Demelkhanov, a school teacher who gives physical education and information science at the settlement of Starye Otogi has sued to the court against a well-known Moscow newspaper. He affirms the newspaper has posed his life to threat. It was done by Moscow publicist Vadim Rechkalov.
Journalist Rechkalov didn’t attempt the life of teacher Demelkhanov. He neither threatened him, nor persecuted him. He didn’t know any teacher Demelkhanov at all. Possibly, teacher Demelkhanov either was not interested in professional activity by journalist Rechkalov till their paths crossed in a very dangerous way for the former.
Publicist Rechkalov accused teacher Demelkhanov of terrorism. It was not done as a metaphor or exaggeration. The newspaper said “our correspondent has found 33rd terrorist from Beslan.” Such was the title of the article. In the article there was a group photograph where Ruslan Demelkhanov was circled for distinguishing. 25 December 2006 the material was published in a number of copies more than one million.
During one day, a modest PT instructor and information science teacher became publicly known terrorist.
To make it clear, yes, Rechkalov didn’t know that he had “figured out” just a teacher Demelkhanov. He believed he had found and circled on the photo the terrorist Maziev. He might have decided to start looking for terrorist Maziev based on the words by the Head of parliament panel investigating events in Beslan Alexander Torshin. The latter announced that unknown before 33rd terrorist from the group attacking Beslan named Yunus Maziev –personal guard of Shamil Basaev - had been placed in the wanted list.
One may assume, publicist Rechkalov picked up the scent. We wouldn’t try guessing who was his guide and who showed him secret paths, but the “trace” led Rechkalov not to a hidden shelter in Chechen woods. It led him to the Internet where at one of the forums he found some young chatting to one another under nick names as it is usual for Internet chatting. “Easily”, Vadim Rechkalov found out one of them to be the wanted “terrorist”.
“Yunus to Vanted: ‘Take a look at this picture. The first guy from the left to right is a good sniper. Be aware of him! :)))’ Link pointed by Maziev is a school photo. The first one from the left to right is a tall guy. I couldn’t understand why Maziev points this particular man and calls him a good sniper. Actually, he shops this guy to authorities as any day the special unit may come to his house with “cleaning” purpose. One Chechen explained me the sense of that. He said ‘most probably, it’s Maziev himself who is pictured in the photo. It’s not common with Chechens to boast openly. But it’s a normal Chechen trick to show oneself on the photo and to tell about oneself in the third person. It looks like you said about someone other, but boasted about yourself’ ”.
This quotation is characteristic of Rechkalov’s train of thought, where he concluded for himself – and for million readers – that Maziev and Demelkhanov is same person. Actually, that was the only “proof”. It was added with the fact that “Yunus” sometimes disappeared from the forum chat - that lasted for several months - and his form of greetings his friends varied from time to time. That spoke much to the investigative publicist. However, the most decisive argument was quoted above. Probably, journalist Rechkalov proved to be too trustful. Without any doubts, he believed that it is characteristic of Chechens to speak about themselves in the third person, like primordial tribes did. That’s strange of Rechkalov as he had been to Chechnya many times. The Chechen language consists of many pronouns and Chechens don’t avoid using them in written or oral speech. But Vadim Rechkalov relied on the words by “one Chechen”. That “one Chechen” misled the journalist several times – while consulting him - as the material abounds with distortion of facts. However, the error about speaking of oneself “in the third person” proved to be critical for the teacher Demelkhanov.
Consequence of mistake
What happens when two politicians or businessmen get confused in a newspaper material? There are indignant phone calls, exchange of letters, apologies published. After that, incident is settled usually.
It’s much different about North Caucasus and its hottest point – Chechnya. It happens there that at night your house gets surrounded by cars with daubed registration numbers. Masked people get out of the cars. They break your door and aim their machine guns at your children. They beat your wife. They take you out of the bed and push into the salon or boot of the car without allowing you to get dressed. They take you to unknown place where they beat you again. They put a cellophane bag on your head and connect sensitive parts of your body to electric supply. They ask you if you are a terrorist. If you don’t confess at once, they ask if some of your neighbors, acquaintances or relatives are terrorists. Interrogation lasts a few hours or a few days. Beating and tortures will make you to remember you were on of those to have attacked Nazran in 2004 or Nalchik in 2005. Or at least you will remember you provisioned some group of some Abu Bakr. Or you will remember it was done by your aged female neighbor. You don’t want your nails out, do you? Well, you’ll have to confess to something.
In Chechnya, the words “gunman” or “terrorist” are equal to a sentence. Even when these words are spoken about you in a form of a vague allusion, that places you out of the law, out of the legal framework. You just find yourself in a distorted and unpredictable space where anything can happen not only to you, but also to your relatives. Their future, present and past change after that.
Can PT instructor Demelkhanov be ease about himself and his kindred now when hundreds of killed Beslan children are “filed” to his own fate?
On responsibility and honor
Can a journalist be secure against a mistake? No, of course. Clause 49 of the Federal Act On the Media says that “A journalist must verify the credibility of communicated by him or her information”. Well, if instead of writing articles the journalists were busy with super seriously full and systematic checking the information, the readers wouldn’t get any news at all. The journalist takes a risk for the sake of topicality of one’s material, popularity of one’s periodical, one’s analytical skills and one’s own ambitions. It happens sometimes that he or she and his or her editorial board are held responsible for the mistakes made. It’s normal practice. So why do we nag at the mistake by the journalist Rechkalov?
The matter is the consequence of the journalists’ mistake might be minor. Ten or twenty thousand rubles of fine is not a serious damage for the periodical. But the price of the mistake is much higher for Demelkhanov. I tried to describe it above, and that’s not exaggeration. Vadim Rechkalov, who often visits North Caucasus can’t be ignorant about this difference. It’s Caucasus where metaphoric expression “to kill with a word” gets direct and threatening meaning.
Responsibility by a journalist in a hot spot is similar to that by a doctor. Their first rule must be “do not make harm”. And even if harm occurred, the journalist must minimize immediately the consequences of one’s mistake. This is not legal liability, but this is personal and professional responsibility by a person who wants to work in the region where a careless word may ruin people’s lives. One may say, this is one’s duty. If a journalist thinks differently, if he or she is not ready for such responsibility, such a journalist mustn’t work in Chechnya, as it would be dangerous for people.
Vadim Rechkalov knows he did a mistake. He and I, we are rather young people and chat sometimes in the Net like many young people of today.
Following Vadim’s practice, I will publish here a fragment of chat between people who are hidden behind impersonal nicknames existing in the virtual space, like that of Yunus, and who probably have the right to be irresponsible because of it.
“Rechkalov to Anna: I wasn’t the first to publish that photo. It had appeared in Caucasus-chat before my dealing with it. Why doesn’t the “aggrieved party” suit against the moderator? Please don’t tell me that chat is not mass media, while the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolez is. Yes, I agree to that, but the fact remains. And one more thing. Neither Maziev’s relatives nor Chechen Committee of National Salvation accentuate the role by Torshin, despite the fact he was related directly to this scandal. Yunus Maziev is no guiltier than Demelkhanov. So why don’t you suit Torshin and require apologies from him?
Anna to Rechkalov: But it’s you, and not the Caucasus–chat, who drew the conclusion being based on the photo in question. As far as I understand the question is if this is Maziev or Demelkhanov pictured in that photo. Do you know that now?
Elya to Rechkalov: To journalist Rechkalov. Dear Vadim, could you URGENTLY publish a disclaimer saying that the circled in the photo young man IS NOT Yunusov? Considering your newspaper’s run it would promote the young man’s safety.
Rechkalov to Elya - 21 January 2007: Elya, I think the newspaper will do it promptly.
It’s been five months since teacher Demelkhanov was made terrorist Maziev by the journalist’s will. The article titled 33rd Beslan’s Gunman still can be viewed on the generally accessible site of the newspaper. Ruslan Demelkhanov still lives in fear. He has made a petition to Moscow Court for justice. The court will probably oblige the newspaper and the journalist to publish the denial and pay compensation. Or probably not. Anyway, now I know that characters from Rechkalov’s publications are not considered by him as flesh and blood. They are just used materials to him. They are those about whom he doesn’t feel his guilt and doesn’t bear responsibility. They are those whose pain he will never feel and whose disappearance he will never notice. For me, it turned to be much a bigger problem than the mistakes themselves done in Rechkalov’s materials. The journalist is also flesh and blood. One wants to believe that the person through whose eyes you see other people’s fates, who makes you learn, empathize and doubt, one wants to believe that this person does it too at least in minimal degree. One wants to see this person feels responsible for one’s words. Otherwise, that person’s knowledge and talent are not much worth.