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Opinion Public editor: Decision to publish gay Chechens story made after exhausting ‘all avenues’

Globe and Mail Public Editor Sylvia Stead.

The Globe and Mail

Last week a reader wondered, on Twitter, whether stories by John Ibbitson on Canada's clandestine project to evacuate gay men from Russia to Canada "put gay Chechen refugees (or continuance of the program) at risk?"

It's an important question.

Mr. Ibbitson first broke this story in early September with the news that for three months, the federal government had been evacuating gay Chechen men from Russia to Canada, a move that could damage relations between the two countries. About 22 are now in Canada.

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In his first story, Mr. Ibbitson spoke to Kimahli Powell, executive director of Rainbow Railroad, a Canadian NGO. "We needed to be discreet about the program for as long as possible to maintain their safety," said Mr. Powell, whose Toronto-based organization offers support for LGBT people at risk in other countries. "We now have to focus on settlement and integration of these individuals. And it's important that our community, who are concerned about them, know that they're here, that they're safe."

I asked Mr. Ibbitson how the Chechen refugee story developed and here is his answer.

"When Human Rights Watch drew attention back in April to the Novaya Gazeta reports on gay Chechen men being detained and tortured, I wrote several columns describing the situation, and calling on the federal government to come to the aid of the men who were hiding in Russian safe houses. The government response was that there was little that Canada could do, because refugee policy required the men to leave Russia first. I considered that response inadequate, and said as much in a column.

In June, I learned that plans were, in fact, under way to bring some men to Canada. But when I contacted government and NGO officials, they responded with genuine alarm. Reporting on the program would literally put the lives of people at risk, they said. After consulting with senior editors, Bob Fife (The Globe's Ottawa bureau chief) decided that we would hold the story. I agreed with that decision. Holding a story is something, as you know, The Globe rarely agrees to do. But in this case, circumstances warranted.

We monitored the situation until government officials reported that all the refugees would be in Canada or safely on their way by the last week of August. We decided to print on Labour Day Saturday. One of the NGOs arranged for me to interview one of the refugees in person. We agreed to protect his identity, because he feared for his safety, and for the safety of people in Chechnya. In the end, 31 refugees arrived. At least one was a woman. Most were from Chechnya, but some were from other republics of the North Caucasus.

In the first week of September we learned that at least one of the refugees had been threatened. We investigated and reported on that incident. We did this over the objections of government and NGO officials, who feared the story would increase the risk to the refugee and interfere with their successful integration. Someone might even bolt, putting himself at greater risk. David Walmsley, the Globe's editor-in-chief, made the final decision to print. I found his reasoning powerful: 'We carry on,' he said by e-mail. 'We can't live in a world of what-ifs. We report what has happened.'

Mr. Walmsley noted that 'the decision to publish was not made in a bubble. After receiving concerns from government I chaired a late night phone conference with editors and reporters on the story. We discussed the concerns and pledged to go back to government and seek further clarity before running anything. We held the story until we had exhausted all avenues, reported all angles and discussed the issue with the NGO.'"

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So back to the question from the reader, whether the stories put the men at risk and whether it was right to publish at all. I believe it was right. You can see the actions taken to protect people by waiting to publish for several months until all were safely out of Russia – a highly unusual call. The editors took the issue very seriously, taking many steps to be fair to everyone concerned.

Without publishing, the public wouldn't know of the dangers faced by gay Chechen men. These days when information is world wide, a story in Canada can help the cause of these men by raising awareness and raising a debate everywhere about this threat. Secrecy has not been helpful to the safety of these men and other people in the world facing human rights abuses.

Canadians also deserve to know what their government is doing and why and what consequences it could have for international relations.

On the question of threats, I agree in this case with Mr. Ibbitson, who said of the fact that at least one refugee has been threatened in Canada: "I believe that keeping the threats a secret would have put them at greater risk."

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