The Cost of Truth: Russian Journalist Elena Maglevannaya's Story

This post is part of a series of reports from Fatima's project on the brutal censorship of journalists in the North Caucasus published in advance of her upcoming feature story in the fall issue of the Nieman Reports.

For her reporting, Elena Maglevannaya was accused of libel, found guilty by a court, sentenced to publish a refutation and pay an approximately $6,500 penalty. Maglevannaya had never seen that much money in her entire life. A professional lawyer, she worked as a freelancer for the local newspaper Svobodnoe Slovo in her hometown of Volgograd in Southern Russia. The highest honorarium she ever received rarely exceeded $30. But it was not the absence of money that upset her the most.

"Of course, I refused to sign and publish the refutation. How could I...everything I had reported was true!" Maglevannaya tells her story sitting at the kitchen table in her friend's house in Helsinki. "The statement itself is a very interesting document. They actually wrote it on my behalf - they only wanted my signature."

The libel case occurred in 2009 after Maglevannaya published her investigation on the inhumane treatment in Russian prisons of detainees arrested during the 14 years of violent separatist struggle in Chechnya. According Maglevannaya's investigation more than 20,000 ethnic Chechens are imprisoned in Russia. In a series of reports on the issue she gives a terrifying picture of constant torture, beatings and humiliation of Chechens in Russian prisons, illustrated by the pictures and handwritten statements from detainees and their lawyers.

After the first report appeared in the newspaper, the administration of the LIU-15 detention colony in Volgograd filed a lawsuit against Maglevannaya accusing her of libel. The court ignored all the evidence and testimony from the defense side and announced Maglevannaya guilty.

Soon after the news about the libel case against Maglevannaya spread, the newspaper Svobodnoe Slovo refused to accept any further reports from her. Maglevannaya, however, did not quit. She created a special website where she posted her reports and pictures of prisoners which prove the fact of their torture.

Maglevannaya's parents, ordinary people from the labor class, were horrified when they found that the city administration and the whole prison system stood up against their daughter. They demanded from her that she immediately plead guilty and sign a refutation. Maglevannaya was left alone in her devotion to justice. Family and societal pressure weren't enough to punish her. Members of the Russian National Unity (RNU) an organization known for its neo-Nazi activities attacked Maglevannaya, accusing her of 'betrayal of the Russian Nation' by advocating for Chechens. In 2009 two alleged members of RNU were arrested in Moscow, and confessed to the murder of the human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and journalist Anastasia Baburova, who worked on cases of violence against Chechen civilians. A leading prison doctor, also believed to be a member of the RNU, told Maglevannaya that she should be institutionalized. Ending up in the mental clinic is not an unprecedented practice in the history of Russia. Lena took the threat from the neo-Nazis seriously.

Alienated and frightened Maglevannaya fled from Russia seeking refuge in Finland. Her asylum case is still pending and she now lives in a refugee camp. She runs her website, receiving dozens of emails every day with new cases for her prison investigations.