Letters   |   Russia

CPJ calls on Medvedev to address impunity

February 4, 2009

His Excellency Dmitry Medvedev

President of the Russian Federation
Office of the President
23 Ilinka Street
Moscow 103132

Via facsimile: + 7 (495) 606 5173

Dear President Medvedev,

The Committee to Protect Journalists is outraged by the January 19 murder of Anastasiya Baburova, the 25-year-old freelance correspondent for the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta who was gunned down in broad daylight in downtown Moscow, along with human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov.

Baburova had worked for Novaya Gazeta since October, covering the activities of neo-Nazi groups that have been on the rise in Russia in recent years. Markelov, 34, cooperated with the newspaper on several cases, including that of Novaya Gazeta's Igor Domnikov. He also defended independent newspaper editor Mikhail Beketov, who was beaten nearly to death in November after criticizing the Khimki administration's decision to deforest the town's woods in order to build a highway. Beketov is now hospitalized in serious condition while his attackers roam free.

Baburova was the fourth Novaya Gazeta reporter to be slain in eight years, and the 20th journalist killed on the job in Russia since 2000, according to CPJ research. Sixteen of the 20 journalists killed were murdered in retaliation for their work, and only in one case--Domnikov's--have the murderers been convicted. All the masterminds remain at large.

Shortly after your inauguration, you publicly stated your commitment to solving attacks on journalists: "All instances related to the attempts on the life and health of journalists in our country will be investigated and prosecuted to the end, regardless of when they occurred," you told a June 5 gathering of politicians and business leaders in Berlin. We commend this pledge and urge you to act on it now by engaging the resources and influence of your high office to bring Baburova's and Markelov's assassins to justice.

Successfully prosecuting this grave crime would be an important step toward reversing Russia's record of impunity in the murders of journalists. It will also mitigate the chilling and demoralizing effect unpunished violence has had on reporters who investigate government corruption, human rights abuses, unrest in the North Caucasus republics, and organized crime.

We are encouraged by the priority status Baburova and Markelov's murder received, and its public condemnation by Russia's top investigator, Aleksandr Bastrykin, whose agency is now in charge of the murder probe. "The brazenness of this crime indicates that the killer was sure of his impunity," Bastrykin said in a statement two days after the crime. "Society ought to be sure that the law works in this country and that no one is permitted to break it." We agree, as we are certain you do, since strengthening the rule of law has been your stated priority since your election.

Your meeting on January 29 with Novaya Gazeta shareholder Mikhail Gorbachev and Editor Dmitry Muratov, at which you expressed condolences to Baburova's and Markelov's families, is a step in the right direction. Though we must respectfully disagree with your view, as conveyed by Muratov, that speaking publicly on the case could bias the official investigation. On the contrary, we believe that condemning the murder publicly and in the strongest terms would send only the right signals: to the criminals--that their days are numbered; to journalists and human rights defenders--that their president values their role in society and stands behind them; to the grieving families--that they are not alone in their bereavement; and, last but not least, to investigating authorities--that they must do their job and deliver justice in this brutal crime. We urge you to speak on the record and condemn the murder.

We also ask that you publicly condemn the appalling reaction to the double murder--plastered in the Russian blogosphere--of neo-Nazis who rejoiced at this brutal crime and praised the killer as a hero. Novaya Gazeta gathered some of these repulsive comments and published them in its January 26 issue under the headline "Their Kampf." This shocking read highlights not only the disturbing issue of the rise of neo-fascism in Russia but also the timeliness and relevance of Baburova's journalism, and the urgent need to protect reporters who choose to cover such sensitive topics.

In reaction to its fourth journalist death, Novaya Gazeta's management filed a request with Russian authorities asking for permission that its journalists carry guns for self protection. "The FSB [Federal Security Service] has a share of responsibility about what happens to Novaya Gazeta," Aleksandr Lebedev, a shareholder in the paper, told a January 22 press conference in Moscow. "If the FSB is unable to guarantee the protection and safety of our journalists, we will try to defend them ourselves."

Mr. President, it is your responsibility as head of state to assure Novaya Gazeta's journalists--as well as the colleagues of the other journalists murdered with impunity in Russia--that their government can and will protect their lives and their right to report the news without fear of violent retaliation. The ultimate weapon, with which the press would be protected is an independent, functioning justice system--another stated priority of your presidency.

Since you have signaled personal interest in the Baburova-Markelov case, we would like to bring to your attention an initial reported discrepancy in the murder investigation. On January 23, Vladimir Pronin, head of the Moscow City Directorate of Internal Affairs, told a news conference that police have retrieved three casings and a bullet from the crime scene, the news agency Interfax reported. But only three days later, Viktor Biryukov, a spokesman for the same police agency told the Russian daily Izvestiya that the investigation had no casings or bullets. We ask that you urge the investigative committee at Russia's prosecutor-general's office to publicly clarify the matter, and to conduct a thorough and transparent investigation that involves regular press briefings.

Thank you for your attention to these urgent matters. We await your response.

Sincerely,

Joel Simon
Executive Director

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