Major media rights group issues scathing report of journalists’ safety in Russia

Publish date: September 16, 2009

Written by: Charles Digges

A New York-based group that supports press freedom worldwide Tuesday issued a report calling on the West to pressure Russian authorities to solve the killings of several journalists over the past years, and asserted that the threat against Russia’s independent media was increasingly threatened because of the government’s failure to pursue the cases.

New York’s Committee to Protect Journalists(CPJ)  noted in its reprt that 17 journalists in Russia in revenge killings for their work since 2000, placing Russia at number three – after Iraq and Afghanistan – as the most dangerous countries for reporters to work in.

In only one of the 17 press killing cases – including the internationally condemned killing of crusading reporter the Kremlin’s human rights abuses in Chechnya, Anna Politkovskaya – have culprits been brought to justice.

“Any state that turns a blind eye – or worse – toward the assassination of reporters cannot call itself a democracy,” Kati Marton, a board member of the group, wrote in CPJ’s “Anatomy of Injustice: The Unsolved Killings of Journalists in Russia” report.

Marton led a delegation to Moscow this week to meet with officials and others to push for progress in the cases, CPJ reported.

The committee said in their report that the journalists became targets because they were scrutinizing powerful people by reporting on corruption or other misconduct.

Investigations into the killings were often mishandled or subject to undue political influence, and prosecutions were similarly bungled, the report said.

This was a reference to a February jury trial for several people who were suspected to have been involved in killing Politkovskaya.

The four suspects were acquitted, but the judge immediately said the prosecution had presented a bungled case and ordered them to reinvestigate it and file an appeal of the innocent verdict to pave the way for a second trial. This trial is currently ongoing.

CPJ did not accuse the Kremlin of direct involvement in the killings, but said President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin had a moral responsibility to address what the committee said was a culture of impunity.

The Kremlin press office, when contacted by Bellona Web, would offer no comment on the report at a whole, but was quick to play up the fact that Medvedev has been trying to mend fences with opposition groups and independent news outlets.

Medvedev visited the editor of Russia’s outspokenly independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta – for which Politkovskaya had worked – when one of its freelance reporters, 25-year-old Anistasiya Baburova, and one of its frequent op-ed contributors, human rights lawyer Sergei Markelov, were gunned down in central Moscow in January.

More recently, Medvedev offered personal condolences to the family of human rights worker Nataliya Estemirova, who was kidnapped and killed in Grozny in July.

The New York Times also reported that Russia authorities have in recent weeks begun new inquiries into the killing of Russian-American Journalist Paul Klebnikov, who, as editor of Russia’s edition of Forbes Magazine was killed in 2004.

But many in opposition and human rights circles remain unconvinced by Medvedev’s overtures, and maintain that his new positon trying to cosy up to these factions and media have an ulterior motive.

Alexander Nikitin, chairman of Bellona’s St. Petersburg office, and Boris Pustintsev of Sat.Petertsburg’s rights watch dog Citizens’ Watch, and a board member of Bellona St. Petersburg, share that sentiment.

When commenting on the situation, both agreed that Medvedev has a financial crisis to contain, and thus needs popular support.

The report maintained that fear of violence had led to a growing climate of self-censorship, with many journalists reluctant to carry out investigative reporting.

Among other right activist and journalists that have been attacked or killed in Russia over the last year include Lev Ponomaryov, 67, leader of the Russia’s For Human Rights group and founding member of Memorial, who was attacked while exiting his car in April.

In February, 72-year-old opposition newspaper editor Yury Grachev was beaten in the Moscow suburb of Solnechonogorsk by unknown assailants. Police investigating the case dismissed the attack on the editor of the investigative newspaper that exposed numerous acts of official corruption as self-inflicted injuries.

In December 2008, at least one unidentified assailant shot in the head and wounded Shafig Amrakhov, 51, editor of the Murmansk-based online regional news agency RIA. He died after a week in the hospital. Earlier the same month, two unidentified assailants attacked and beat Zhanna Akbasheva, a local correspondent for the independent news agency Regnum, in the North Caucasus Republic  of Karachai-Cherkessiya.

In November 2008 Mikhail Beketov, editor of the authority-rankling Khimskaya Pravda newspaper, was beaten nearly to death in the Moscow suburb of Khimki. His paper wrote exposés on corruption and campaigned on environmental issues.

Beketov’s supporters say he made enemies by campaigning against a plan to build a toll highway between Moscow and St Petersburg through a forest on the outskirts of Khimki.

These crimes remain unsolved.