Queer people around the world are still punished for their sexuality on a daily basis, but it's likely you'll only hear about it when they’re rounded up and killed en masse. "Look at Chechnya," says journalist Ali Feruz, an Uzbek former correspondent for the radical Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, which first broke the story of the LGBTQ "purge" two years ago. "Murders had been happening for a long time, but the media only wrote about it when it happened on such a large scale. It's still happening in other countries, so we should be talking about it now – not after another hundred people have been killed."
It's no exaggeration to say that the press may have saved Ali’s life. After years of close encounters with Russian authorities, Ali was arrested in 2017, a court ruled that he had been working illegally for Novaya Gazeta and ordered for him to be deported. As an openly queer journalist reporting on human rights violations in Russia, his life was difficult; but as an openly queer man facing deportation to Uzbekistan, where homophobia is still enshrined in law, his life looked to be under even more significant threat. Fleeing the country over a decade ago after being tortured in detention, Ali has openly stated that he’d rather die than return.
Journalists and human rights defenders around the world came to his defence, and after a lengthy campaign he was released to Germany last year. "I'm so happy," he tells me now over Skype. "So many journalists and activists reached out to me and helped, but I know some situations where people are in similar circumstances. They still don’t have good results – and in some cases, they have really bad results."
Ali admits that collaborations between journalists and persecuted activists don’t always yield success, but his experiences recently led to him developing the new media project Unit – a network of journalists who want to improve the quality of reporting on marginalised groups in post-Soviet states – in collaboration with the NGO n-ost.
"Our aim is to connect journalists with human rights defenders," explains coordinator Andreas Schmiedecker, who also intervenes on occasion to translate questions to Ali. "The idea was to create a network of journalists in post-Soviet states who are working on LGBT topics. We looked at Ali's experience and found that you can’t foster progress for human rights without the right media environment, so we wanted to create something long-term to ensure better reporting on these issues."
Unit has published two stories, and a third – about the ongoing LGBTQ rights violations in Chechnya, written from a feminist perspective – is on the way. A crowdfunding campaign has been set up to pay journalists and to support the network more generally as they help each other out with skills including translation, consultancy and reporting. This finance model enables them to bypass middlemen and advertisers, and – most importantly – ensure that their articles don’t need to be shrouded by paywalls.
Decisions like these are all part of their mission to – as Ali says with a chuckle – "make journalism great again". Andreas explains the strategy: "There’s a local and a global aim, so on the one hand we’re publishing stories to an international audience, but on the other we’re on the ground doing workshops with people and trying to empower them. One of the best ways to do that is to connect them, especially if they don’t already have an outreach."
This personal touch is what sets Unit apart. "The media likes to paint these people as victims, but they're fighters as well," says Ali. "They’re trying to make their lives better, so it’s important we give them the space to tell their stories." Andreas continues: "It was a tricky balance, because we don’t want to reinforce that 'victim' narrative, but at the same time the facts speak for themselves. The network aspect ensures these stories don’t come from just one perspective.”
Their latest story was published on US-based site The Advocate, and it’s as emotional as it is informative. Exiled activists recall being beaten on a regular basis; of fearing for their lives at political rallies; of coming to the difficult conclusion that the only way to improve their chances of survival was to flee their home countries. It’s heartbreaking, but it’s also unusually uplifting – as Ali points out, these people aren’t just victims.
Nuanced life stories of marginalised people are still a rarity in even the most progressive countries, so to see this determination to give voice to the voiceless is heartening. But there are challenges such as funding and censorship, which often go hand in hand. "Finding local partners has been difficult," says Andreas. "Not all of them are able to work openly with us, and in some countries relevant NGOs just don’t exist. Then there are complicated laws, like in Russia where they have very strict laws against foreign agents – it's even at the point where people are being individually persecuted for working with foreign media."
Despite these obstacles, both Ali and Andreas are passionate about the media’s potential to spark change. Ali cites the example of a gay blogger from Tajikistan, whose authorities drew up an official list of known LGBTQ people in 2018, supposedly for their "safety".
"There was a video of [blogger] Sasha Masskva being attacked in Moscow in front of a police officer," Ali explains. "He said it was because he wears makeup and plays feminine songs on Instagram; that these men attacked him for that. You can see a police officer on his phone pretending to ignore the situation."
The clip is a glimpse into the harassment queer people face often, but surprisingly it generated support for Masskva even from conservative commentators, seemingly proving Ali’s point that media coverage can be positive. "That's why we need to spark discussion, because we saw people supporting him. They were saying that he’s human; he didn’t do anything wrong, and he didn’t commit a crime. He shouldn’t have been punished, and I think people are starting to realise that."