Attacks on the Press in 2008: Russia

When Vladimir Putin's handpicked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, won 68 percent of the vote in Russia's presidential election March 2, many saw in the new leader a moderate technocrat who might liberalize the country's press policies. In his May 7 inauguration speech, Medvedev declared that the protection of human rights and freedom would drive "the sense and the substance of all state policy" under his presidency. A month later, speaking at a gathering of business and political leaders in Berlin, Medvedev pledged that "all instances related to attempts on the life and health of journalists will be investigated and prosecuted to the end, regardless of when they occurred."

But the new president's encouraging words were overshadowed by another brutal year for Russia's independent journalists, who faced a barrage of legal and physical attacks. In December, parliament passed legislation eliminating jury trials in cases that involve terrorism, extremism, or treason. Authorities have used extremism charges to retaliate against a number of government critics, including journalists. Judges are far less likely to hand down acquittals than juries, according to Russian legal experts. The bill awaited Medvedev's signature in late year--just as a second alarming measure went before parliament. In December, Putin's government submitted legislation that could make communication with international nongovernmental organizations an act of treason punishable by 20 years in prison. The measure bars people from providing information vaguely defined as "against the security of the Russian Federation" to international groups that defend human rights and press freedom.

CPJ has been active in trying to counter violence against journalists in Russia. In November 2007, CPJ launched a global campaign against impunity that focused on Russia and the Philippines--two countries with high numbers of journalists killed for their work. As part of the campaign, CPJ met in February with high-ranking officials in the German Chancellery to seek support in reversing Russia's record as the world's third-deadliest country for journalists. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her government addressed the issue with then-President Putin and other high-ranking Russian officials in a number of bilateral meetings. CPJ was joined in Berlin by Dmitry Muratov, editor-in-chief of the Moscow-based independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta and a 2007 recipient of CPJ's International Press Freedom Award. Muratov, who lost three colleagues to work-related murders, told German officials about his newspaper's struggle to bring justice in reporters' killings and the need for international support in that effort.

Some progress was reported in the investigation into the October 2006 murder of Anna Politkovskaya, the well-known Novaya Gazeta special correspondent. The trial of three suspects in Politkovskaya's execution-style killing started in November in the Moscow District Military Court. A 19-member jury began hearing evidence after a series of puzzling moves by the presiding judge, Yevgeny Zubov, who opened the trial to the press, then closed it without apparent legal basis, only to reopen it in the face of domestic and international outcry. The three defendants--Sergei Khadzhikurbanov, a former police officer with the Moscow Directorate for Combating Organized Crime, and ethnic Chechen brothers Ibragim and Dzhabrail Makhmudov--were charged with organizing the hit on Politkovskaya. Neither the alleged triggerman--a third Makhmudov brother named Rustam--nor those who ordered the crime were in custody. Rustam Makhmudov was wanted on an international warrant, but investigators did not name a suspected mastermind.

Sixteen journalists have been slain in Russia since 2000, with all but one case unsolved. Two journalists were killed in 2008: Magomed Yevloyev, owner of the embattled opposition news site Ingushetiya, who was killed in police custody in the southern republic of Ingushetia; and Tamerlan Alishayev, host of a religious education program on TV-Chirkei, who was murdered in Dagestan.

Both killings took place in Russia's restive North Caucasus, a region where tensions can be brought to a boil seemingly at a moment's notice. Testament to that was the August conflict in the disputed region of South Ossetia, which claimed the lives of three journalists in five days of fighting between Russian, Georgian, and local forces. Ten journalists were injured.

The fighting in South Ossetia stoked tensions across the border. In Russia's North Caucasus republics, opposition and human rights groups had for months protested abuses by corrupt regional governments installed and supported by the Kremlin. In recent years, federal authorities largely contained the separatist conflict in Chechnya, but violence spread to the neighboring republics of Ingushetia, Dagestan, North Ossetia, and Kabardino-Balkariya. In Ingushetia, frequent opposition rallies erupted over the failure of then-President Murat Zyazikov to solve waves of civilian abductions and killings. Journalists who tried to cover the protests faced physical attack, harassment, and obstruction.

On January 26, for example, Ingushetia police detained, beat, and deported nine journalists and two human rights activists who tried to cover an opposition rally in Ingushetia's largest city, Nazran. Authorities mounted a massive crackdown against roughly 200 protesters gathered in the downtown square to protest widespread corruption, abductions, killings, and arbitrary detentions in Ingushetia, CPJ sources said. Riot police in heavy gear used clubs to disperse the rally; armored personnel carriers and helicopters were deployed, according to CPJ sources. Police rounded up journalists and human rights defenders and detained them at the local police headquarters for several hours, preventing them from reporting on the demonstration. Two of the journalists were badly beaten, according to CPJ interviews.

Local authorities, with Moscow's backing, went to great lengths to prevent independent coverage of the North Caucasus. Reporters and photographers had to obtain specific accreditation to work in the region. That and other policies choked off the flow of information about crime, corruption, and human rights abuses in the North Caucasus. The few local journalists who sought to cover the news suffered harsh consequences.

On July 25, at least 50 armed, masked men in camouflage gear raided the home of Zurab Tsechoyev, editor of Mashr, a human rights Web site based in Ingushetia that carried detailed information on abuses in the republic. The men shoved him into an armored personnel carrier in front of his wife and young children, drove him to an undisclosed location, and interrogated and beat him for five hours. Tsechoyev was hospitalized with a broken leg, kidney damage, and multiple bruises. The assailants left him on a road outside Ingushetia's capital, Magas, after threatening to kill him and his family if he didn't quit his job and leave Ingushetia. The attackers did not present identification, but they were believed to be officers of the Federal Security Service (FSB) based on their clothing, vehicles, and weapons, CPJ sources said. Armed with AK-47 assault rifles, the assailants seized Tsechoyev's laptop and two mobile phones, and questioned him about Ingushetiya's recent publication of a list of FSB agents accused in a wave of murders in Ingushetia. The attackers questioned Tsechoyev about whether he had leaked the list to the publication, CPJ sources said. The brutal attack on Tsechoyev remained unsolved.

The next month, Yevloyev, owner of Ingushetiya, was killed in police custody. Yevloyev died of a gunshot wound to the head while being transported by Ingushetia police after his arrest on unspecified charges at the airport in Magas. Police immediately called the shooting an accident, saying Yevloyev had tried to wrestle a gun from one of the arresting officers, causing it to go off. Yevloyev's relatives, colleagues, and friends told CPJ that they believed he had been murdered to silence the Web site.

Ingushetiya and its staff had regularly been harassed by regional authorities in the weeks preceding Yevloyev's death. The site was known to human rights and press freedom groups in Russia and abroad as a reliable source of information in the tightly controlled southern republic. Ingushetiya reported on government corruption, human rights abuses, unemployment, and a string of unsolved disappearances in the months before Yevloyev's killing.

Yevloyev had told CPJ in June that Ingushetia authorities were carrying out a legal offensive against the site, filing more than a dozen lawsuits in a year. In June, a district court in Moscow ordered that the site be closed for alleged extremism. Despite the court's decision, Yevloyev and colleagues continued to publish Ingushetiya, whose server was based in the United States.

In August, Ingushetiya's editor-in-chief, Roza Malsagova, fled Russia after enduring harassment, threats, and beatings at the hands of Ingushetia authorities. Faced with a politically motivated criminal case on charges of "incitement of ethnic hatred" and "distribution of extremist materials," Malsagova sought asylum in France.

When authorities classified Yevloyev's case as "death caused by negligence," a wave of protests swept Nazran. Yevloyev's family and friends called for justice and declared a blood vendetta--a local custom of repaying violence with violence--against President Zyazikov and his interior minister, Musa Medov. Faced with public unrest, Zyazikov resigned in late October. Medov was removed from his post in November, according to local news reports.

New Ingushetia President Yunus-bek Yevkurov paid a visit to the Yevloyev family in early November to express condolences and promise a thorough investigation. On November 28, the Russian prosecutor general's office recommended that Yevloyev's case be moved out of Ingushetia's jurisdiction to ensure a fair investigation, the news agency RIA Novosti reported.

More instances of violence against journalists cemented the North Caucasus' rank as Russia's most dangerous assignment. Days after Yevloyev's murder, a second journalist was killed and a third severely beaten in the volatile region. Telman Alishayev, a reporter and host for the Islamic television channel TV-Chirkei in the southern republic of Dagestan, died September 3 of gunshot wounds from an attack a day earlier in the local capital, Makhachkala. Two unidentified assailants approached Alishayev on the evening of September 2 and shot him at close range as he was sitting in his car. He had hosted a religious and education program on TV-Chirkei and produced a documentary critical of the conservative Sunni form of Islam, Wahhabism. In a separate case on the same day, the editor of the independent weekly Gazeta Yuga in the southern republic of Kabardino-Balkariya was hospitalized with multiple injuries after three unidentified men beat him at the entrance to his apartment building in the local capital, Nalchik. Gazeta Yuga is one of the few news outlets in Kabardino-Balkariya to openly criticize local authorities. The editor, Miloslav Bitokov, had received threats for his work.

Authorities both in Moscow and the provinces continued to use legal harassment to censor critical journalists and media outlets. Two journalists in the central Republic of Bashkortostan, for instance, were convicted under a recently expanded, vaguely worded law on countering extremism. Viktor Shmakov, editor-in-chief of the independent newspaper Provintsialnye Vesti, and contributing writer Airat Dilmukhametov, were each given a suspended two-year prison term by a district court in the regional capital, Ufa, in June. Provintsialnye Vesti was forced to close because of the prosecution. In addition to the sentences, Shmakov and Dilmukhametov were barred from working as journalists for another year. In a separate case this summer, inspectors with the state media regulatory agency audited the content of the alternative English-language biweekly The eXile in Moscow, looking for "extremism," "incitement of national hatred," "pornography" and "pro-drug propaganda." Nervous investors soon withdrew their support, and the paper folded. Mark Ames, the publication's founder and editor, told CPJ he believed the audit had been prompted by the paper's publication of a regular column by Eduard Limonov, leader of the banned National Bolshevik Party. Limonov has been effectively airbrushed from the mainstream media, banned from television and ignored by newspapers.

An editor suffered horrific injuries in a November attack. Mikhail Beketov, editor of the independent newspaper Khimkinskaya Pravda in the town of Khimki, Moscow Region, was found unconscious in his backyard on November 13. He had been there since the day before, when unknown assailants beat him nearly to death.

Beketov was taken first to a Khimki hospital with multiple fractures, a cracked skull, hematomas, and a concussion. He was transferred to a Moscow clinic where he underwent a series of operations, including amputations of part of one leg and the fingers of one hand.

Even hospitalized, Beketov continued to receive anonymous death threats on his cell phone. Unknown callers pledged that they would "finish him" and that he was "due for a hit," according to CPJ sources close to the editor. The editor had heavily criticized the Khimki administration's decision to deforest a vast area to build a freeway connecting Moscow and St. Petersburg. He had faced trouble in 2007 as well: After Khimkinskaya Pravda published an article about excavations at a World War II burial site, prosecutors opened a criminal case against Beketov on defamation charges. In May 2007, unidentified men set Beketov's car on fire. The attack went unaddressed.

Despite an apparent conflict of interest, the Beketov attack was initially handled by the same Khimki authorities the editor had criticized. After a domestic and international outcry, including objections from CPJ, Russia's top prosecutor, Yuri Chaika, assumed jurisdiction in late November. The case was upgraded from "deliberate causing of bodily harm" to "attempted murder," and Beketov was provided protection in the hospital.


EUROPE AND CENTRAL ASIA: Regional Analysis
Conquering Television to Control the Narrative

EUROPE AND CENTRAL ASIA: Country Summaries
Armenia Kyrgyzstan
Azerbaijan Russia
Belarus Serbia
Georgia Turkmenistan
Kazakhstan Uzbekistan
Other Attacks and Developments in the Region


February 10, 2009 12:17 AM ET |

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