CPJ calls on Putin to end climate of “lawlessness, impunity” that led to slayings of Klebnikov, other journalists

Your Excellency:

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) calls on you to address the climate of lawlessness that has led to the slayings of more than a dozen independent journalists in Russia in four years, most recently the July 9 murder of Paul Klebnikov, the 41-year-old editor of the Russian edition of Forbes Magazine.

Klebnikov is the 15th journalist killed in connection with his work during your tenure. Yet no one has been brought to justice in any of the slayings, creating a sense of impunity that endangers all journalists and undermines your democracy.

An American journalist of Russian descent, Klebnikov was shot four times by at least one assassin in a passing car as he stepped outside his office that evening in Moscow. He died shortly after arriving at City Hospital No. 20 in Moscow.

Klebnikov launched Forbes‘ Russian edition in April 2004, believing that reforms were propelling the country toward greater transparency in business and politics. In his first editorial, Klebnikov said Russian business had arrived at a “new, more civilized stage of development” and cited the launch of Forbes‘ Russian edition as evidence.

The only plausible motive appears to be Klebnikov’s investigative journalism, which focused on the nexus of business, politics, and crime. Some observers believe the slaying might have been ordered by someone unhappy with a list of Russia’s 100 wealthiest people, which Forbes published in May. Forbes reported that Moscow had 33 billionaires, more than any other city in the world.

Publication of the list focused attention on Russia’s billionaires, many of whom are trying to keep a low profile as your regime uses the country’s courts, prosecutors, and security services to rein in oligarchs and strengthen the state’s economic role. U.S.-based National Public Radio reported that some oligarchs threatened the editor, claiming their assets were inflated on the Forbes list.

With his fluency in Russian and doctorate from the London School of Economics, Klebnikov was uniquely qualified to investigate Russia’s business world. In 1996 he profiled Boris Berezovsky, the media and oil tycoon who had close ties to the Kremlin during President Boris Yeltsin’s tenure, calling him a “powerful gangland boss.” The Forbes profile suggested Berezovsky might have been involved in the 1995 murder of television journalist Vladislav Listyev a year earlier – an allegation that prompted Berezovsky to sue Klebnikov and Forbes in the United Kingdom for libel the same year. He withdrew his suit last year after Forbes said it had no proof of Berezovsky’s involvement.

Klebnikov expanded his profile of Berezovsky into a book titled “Godfather of the Kremlin: The Decline of Russia in the Age of Gangster Capitalism,” which he published in 2001. In his book, Klebnikov documented the business career of Berezovsky, who rose from car dealer to one of Russia’s richest and most influential businessmen.

“Somebody clearly did not like the way [Klebnikov] operated and decided to sort him out, Russian-style,” the now exiled oligarch Berezovsky told The Moscow Times in a telephone interview from London. “All over the world rich people like to keep a low profile but in Russia the situation is even more extreme. If you publish a list of the country’s richest people, it’s like informing on them to the prosecutors,” Berezovsky said, referring to the anti-oligarch mood that currently dominates Russian politics.

Klebnikov’s second book was published in Russian. “Conversation with a Barbarian: Interviews with a Chechen Field Commander on Banditry and Islam” was based on interviews with Chechen separatist leader Khozh Akhmed Nukhayev and focused on organized crime in Chechnya. And Klebnikov had begun gathering material for a new book about the Listyev slaying, his publisher, Valery Streletsky, told the U.S.-based Baltimore Sun.

Klebnikov’s murder is part of a broad pattern in which 15 journalists have been killed with impunity since 2000.

Some were targeted because of their reporting on questionable business deals. Two successive editors-in-chief of the Tolyatinskoye Obozreniye, an independent newspaper based in the Volga River city of Togliatti, were slain after the paper exposed controversial business deals linked to organized crime and government corruption.

In April 2002, an assassin shot Valery Ivanov eight times in the head at point blank range using a pistol with a silencer. In October 2003, Aleksei Sidorov was stabbed several times in the chest by an unidentified assailant outside his home. Prosecutors have reported no progress in the Ivanov case; in the Sidorov slaying, they have been accused of pressuring a local welder into a false confession.

A CPJ delegation traveled to Russia in June to meet with the Ivanov and Sidorov families, a lawyer representing both families, and the prosecutor and investigator working on the cases. The families and their lawyer told CPJ that police and prosecutors committed numerous procedural violations in their inquiries and in some cases refused to interview witnesses whose testimony contradicted their version of events.

These and other cases have not been properly investigated or prosecuted, a testament to the ongoing lawlessness in Russia and your failure to reform the country’s weak and politicized criminal justice system. This culture of impunity sends a shocking message to the world about your indifference to press freedom, and reassures those who use violence to silence their critics that they can literally get away with murder. The fear and self-censorship generated by these killings benefits corrupt government officials and businessmen, as well as organized crime figures who seek to avoid public scrutiny.

We call on you to do everything in your power to ensure that authorities address this pattern of lawlessness by aggressively investigating and prosecuting those who murdered Paul Klebnikov, as well as those culpable in the other unsolved murders. A press crippled by fear cannot play the role democracy demands, informing the public. Without such accountability, your country’s future political reforms, economic development and national security are endangered.


Ann Cooper
Executive Director