Attacks on the Press   |   Russia

Attacks on the Press 2007: Russia

RUSSIA

Constitutional constraints posed little problem for a term-limited President Vladimir Putin, who appeared certain to hold power long after his tenure was due to end in 2008. The popular, two-term president hopped into the parliamentary race in the fall, topping the dominant United Russia ticket that took 64 percent of the vote in a December 2 election. Eight days later, Putin endorsed First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to be his successor, smoothing his protégé’s road to the March 2008 presidential election. Medvedev returned the favor by announcing that, as president, he would name Putin prime minister—a post likely to carry greater powers given United Russia’s control of parliament.

The parliamentary campaign offered plenty of alarming signs for the press and civil society. Authorities cracked down on dissent, moved aggressively to limit news coverage of any party other than United Russia, and harassed the few news outlets that tried to cover the opposition. In an unambiguous signal that Russia would not tolerate outside scrutiny, the Central Election Commission slashed by three-quarters the number of international election observers allowed to monitor the vote. A mere 300 observers were allowed to monitor roughly 100,000 polling stations.

Putin’s plans were shrouded in secrecy for most of the year, but his government’s determination to muzzle critics was pronounced and clear. Three journalists were behind bars when CPJ conducted its annual census on December 1. Two journalists committed “suicide” under mysterious circumstances. Critical media outlets and nongovernmental groups were harassed or closed altogether. Journalists took fewer risks in covering sensitive subjects such as corruption, organized crime, and human rights abuses. Authorities applied new extremism charges, bureaucratic harassment, and Soviet-style forced psychiatric detention. And they deployed special forces to disperse peaceful opposition demonstrations and to prevent journalists from covering the protests.

Despite an increasingly repressive climate, authorities made progress in three high-profile journalist murders—those of Igor Domnikov, Yuri Shchekochikhin, and Anna Politkovskaya, all reporters with the fiercely independent Moscow newspaper Novaya Gazeta. Five men were convicted in August in the 2000 murder of Domnikov—the first convictions in a reporter’s slaying obtained during Putin’s eight-year tenure. The landmark verdict was followed by another encouraging sign. A newly formed investigative committee under the jurisdiction of the prosecutor general’s office announced in November that it had opened a separate probe into the masterminds of Domnikov’s murder. The committee, created in September, was charged with overseeing major criminal cases.

Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika announced on August 27 the arrests of 10 suspects in the 2006 murder of Politkovskaya. Chaika told reporters that the suspects included current and former officials from the Interior Ministry and Federal Security Service (FSB), as well as members of a criminal gang headed by an ethnic Chechen. Two days later, a spokeswoman for the Moscow City Court announced that a warrant had been issued for an 11th suspect, a former police officer with the Moscow Directorate for Combating Organized Crime. Authorities provided no details on the suspects’ alleged involvement.

In October, the prosecutor’s investigative committee said it would open a criminal probe into the mysterious July 2003 death of Yuri Shchekochikhin, deputy editor of Novaya Gazeta, who died from a purported “acute allergy.” At the time of his death, Shchekochikhin was uncovering high-level corruption involving top officials with the FSB and the prosecutor general’s office. Colleagues, who had repeatedly sought a criminal investigation, said they believe the 53-year-old journalist was poisoned to stop his reporting. The sudden illness that befell Shchekochikhin during a June 2003 business trip initially had flulike symptoms, which quickly grew into full-fledged organ failure. Hospital authorities sealed—even from Shchekochikhin’s family—his medical tests and autopsy, labeling the documents “medical secrets.”

The courage displayed by Novaya Gazeta journalists was recognized in November, when CPJ honored Editor-in-Chief Dmitry Muratov with an International Press Freedom Award. Muratov spoke of the heavy price the paper has paid for its independent editorial stance and aggressive investigative reporting.

Fourteen journalists have been slain in direct relation to their work during Putin’s tenure, making Russia the world’s third-deadliest nation for the press. A CPJ delegation traveled to Moscow in January to meet with Foreign Ministry officials and the president’s Council on Human Rights. Expressing grave concern at the lack of progress in journalist murder investigations, the delegation called on Putin to stop the cycle of violence by bringing the perpetrators to justice.

A week later, Putin issued his first public pledge to protect Russia’s press corps and noted the importance of Politkovskaya’s journalism. “The issue of journalist persecution is one of the most pressing,” Putin told the hundreds of reporters gathered in the Kremlin’s Round Hall for the annual presidential press conference. “We realize our degree of responsibility in this. We will do everything to protect the press corps.” He described Politkovskaya as “a rather sharp critic of authorities,” adding, “This is good.” His remarks were in sharp contrast to his initial reaction to the murder, in October 2006, when he downplayed the significance of Politkovskaya’s work and said “her influence on political life in Russia was minimal.”

Putin’s pledge to protect the press, though welcomed, was undercut by events that followed. The retrial of two suspects in the 2004 murder of Forbes Russia Editor Paul Klebnikov stalled in March because one suspect went missing. Ivan Safronov, a prominent military correspondent for the business daily Kommersant, died that same month after falling from an upper-floor window in his Moscow apartment building. Prosecutors termed the death a suicide, citing unspecified personal reasons. In a special report in November, “Another Mystery in Moscow,” CPJ spotlighted numerous questions that investigators left unanswered.

Safronov, 51, plunged to his death just days after returning from a reporting trip to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, where he had covered an international gathering of defense manufacturers. He left no suicide note, had no evident personal or professional problems, had no life-threatening illness, and was expecting his first grandchild. Just before he supposedly took his own life, he had dropped by a grocery store and picked up some oranges. The fruit was found strewn on the landing between the building’s fourth and fifth stories.

Colleagues said Safronov had just obtained sensitive information about Russian arms sales to Syria and Iran—a story that would have embarrassed authorities. He told colleagues that he had been warned not to publish the information, and that the FSB would charge him with disclosing state secrets if he did. For weeks after Safronov’s death, authorities did not question reporters or search the journalist’s computer or his notes. Ilya Bulavinov, Safronov’s editor, told CPJ that authorities appeared uninterested in examining his journalism as a possible motive for murder.

Another journalist’s death was also termed a suicide. Vyacheslav Ifanov, 29, a cameraman for the independent television station Novoye Televideniye Aleiska in the Siberian city of Aleisk, was declared the victim of self-induced carbon monoxide poisoning in April. Yet Ifanov had received death threats, and family members found wounds on his body. On the night before his death, he was featured in a television report that described an earlier attack against him. In the April 4 broadcast, Ifanov said he hoped to identify his attackers soon with the help of police, the Moscow-based daily Izvestiya reported. Ifanov was referring to a January incident in which a group of unidentified men wearing camouflage attacked him after he filmed them gathering in the center of Aleisk, according to local press reports. After realizing they were being filmed, the men broke Ifanov’s camera, destroyed his footage, and severely beat him. During the attack, the men told the journalist, “We warned you that military reconnaissance works here, but you didn’t listen,” the Novosibirsk State Television and Radio Company quoted Ifanov as saying. The journalist sustained a concussion in the attack and spent several days in the hospital, according to local press reports.

CPJ highlighted violence against Russian journalists in August testimony before the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. “As violence against these messengers goes unpunished, fewer journalists are willing to risk their lives in pursuit of difficult stories, the press is forced to compromise its role as a watchdog, and the public is kept in the dark about important issues,” CPJ Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova told the commission.

Ognianova also noted that, as elections approached, authorities were cracking down on opponents with vigor. Special police forces broke up rallies, or “Dissenters’ Marches,” organized by Other Russia, the opposition coalition led by former world chess champion Garry Kasparov and nationalist writer Eduard Limonov. Journalists who tried to cover the protests were harassed. In March, for example, police detained nine Russian and international journalists as they covered a Dissenters’ March in the central Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod. Three of the journalists were beaten. In April, police in St. Petersburg seized thousands of copies of an opposition paper destined to be transported to Moscow ahead of a Dissenters’ March planned in the capital the next day. In May, police detained three foreign journalists from leading news outlets as they prepared to fly from a Moscow airport to a Dissenters’ March in the southern city of Samara. And on the eve of the December vote, police in the northern city of Arkhangelsk seized the entire press run of the local independent newspaper Arkhangelsky Obozrevatel, the independent radio station Ekho Moskvy reported. The issue carried articles critical of United Russia and local authorities.

In a disturbing move, Putin signed into law a package of amendments expanding the definition of extremism to include even the public discussion of such activity, and giving law enforcement officials broad authority to suspend media outlets that do not comply. Ostensibly designed to fight extremism—including the growing nationalist and neo-Nazi movements—the new measures have already restricted the independent press and critical writers. Ekho Moskvy received 15 letters from the FSB, prosecutors, and media regulators, all warning the station against carrying “extremist” statements. Authorities launched an official probe of prominent political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky, author of the critical 2006 political diary Unloved Country, for making public appeals to extremism. Several regional newspapers faced similar charges and possible closure.

Also disturbing was the resurrection of forced psychiatric confinement—a measure used during Soviet times to silence dissidents. Two cases were particularly egregious. Vladimir Chugunov, founder and editor of the now-defunct newsweekly Chugunka in the town of Solnechnogorsk, was arrested in January on a spurious charge of “threatening to murder or cause serious health damage.” He spent more than four months in state custody, shuttling between prison cells, hospital wards, and psychiatric wards. Chugunov had long angered local authorities with articles criticizing the Solnechnogorsk government and judiciary.

Writer Larisa Arap, an activist affiliated with Kasparov’s United Civic Front party, was held in a Russian psychiatric hospital for 46 days. The forced hospitalization came after the party’s newspaper, Dissenters’ March, published her comments on abusive treatment of patients at the Murmansk regional psychiatric hospital in the northern city of Apatity. Arap said hospital personnel tied her to her bed, beat her, tried to smother her with a pillow, and injected her with undisclosed drugs. On August 13, an independent psychiatric evaluation, ordered by Ombudsman for Human Rights Vladimir Lukin, concluded that Arap had been illegally hospitalized. Even so, it took an international outcry, including statements from CPJ, to persuade authorities to honor the independent evaluation and release Arap on August 20.

Provincial authorities used spurious charges such as infringing on copyright law and using counterfeit software to shutter independent and opposition outlets ahead of national elections. In November, just weeks before the parliamentary elections, authorities in Samara suspended publication of the local edition of Novaya Gazeta. Local police raided the paper’s bureau, seizing computers and financial documents and placing editor Sergei Kurt-Adzhiyev under criminal investigation for violating copyright law. An earlier raid against the bureau had occurred in May. Although copyright infringement is pervasive in Russia, Kurt-Adzhiyev faced up to six years in prison. The paper had regularly covered the activities of the Other Russia coalition.

Authorities continued to stifle news about Russia’s volatile North Caucasus region. To promote an image of stability, Putin elevated Chechnya’s notorious prime minister, Ramzan Kadyrov, to president of the Chechen republic in February. Human rights abuses committed by Kadyrov and his military forces have been well documented.

Two reporters who had long covered Russia’s North Caucasus for international news outlets were forced to resettle in the United States in the spring after enduring intense official retaliation for their work. Yuri Bagrov and Fatima Tlisova, former correspondents for The Associated Press and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, joined CPJ in speaking to the U.S. Congressional Human Rights Caucus in late June. They told the caucus of harassment, obstruction, and attacks they had endured at the hands of the FSB because of their reporting on civilian abductions, illegal detentions, torture, and human rights abuses by officials in Chechnya and other parts of the North Caucasus.

Imprisonment became a risk once again for critical journalists in Russia. In late year, authorities held three journalists behind bars because of their work: Boris Stomakhin, editor of the monthly newspaper Radikalnaya Politika in Moscow; Anatoly Sardayev, founder and editor of the independent weekly Mordoviya Segodnya in Saransk; and Nikolai Andrushchenko, co-founder and an editor of the weekly newspaper Novy Peterburg in St. Petersburg.

Like this article? Support our work