President Vladimir Putin and his allies continued to expand control
over the media, using methods that critics called reminiscent of the Soviet era. Journalists who took on powerful political or business interests sometimes paid with their lives. Two journalists were killed in 2005 for their reporting. In the five years since Putin took power, 12 journalists have been killed in contract-style slayings. None of the killers have been brought to justice.
In the southern republic of Dagestan, Magomedzagid Varisov, a political analyst for the Makhachkala-based Novoye Delo, died in a hail of machine-gun bullets in an ambush on June 28. Varisov, who wrote about organized crime and the war in neighboring Chechnya, had received anonymous threats before his murder.
In May, Pavel Makeev, a 21-year-old cameraman for the Puls television station in the southern Rostov region, was killed by a hit-and-run driver while filming illegal drag racing. His body was thrown into a ditch and his camera was tossed into a river in what colleagues believe was an effort to prevent him from reporting on illegal betting in connection with the races.
Authorities appeared to make some progress in solving the June 2004 disappearance of Maksim Maksimov, a reporter for the St. Petersburg weekly magazine Gorod who was investigating police corruption. Local prosecutors confirmed on June 27 that three police officers were suspects in Maksimov’s abduction and possible murder. Authorities continued to interview witnesses and to search for Maksimov’s body.
In July, CPJ addressed the impunity enjoyed by those who attack journalists by organizing an unprecedented conference in Moscow. It brought together relatives and colleagues of the dozen murdered journalists to discuss why police and prosecutors had not made greater progress in solving the cases. Conference participants–who included Russian press freedom advocates and lawyers–issued a statement calling on Putin to publicly acknowledge the killings and demonstrate his commitment to the rule of law. Officials in the prosecutor general’s office and the Kremlin refused to meet with a CPJ delegation, and the Kremlin did not respond to the conference statement. But the conference drew wide local and international media attention, and, two months later, the prosecutor general’s office provided CPJ with a formal letter outlining the status of the unsolved murder cases. The relatives and colleagues of the slain journalists have continued discussing how they might cooperate to conduct advocacy campaigns and gain additional legal support for their cases.
The prosecutor general reported some progress in the July 2004 slaying of Paul Klebnikov, an American of Russian descent who was an investigative writer and the first editor of Forbes Russia. Three suspects were arrested, and court proceedings began in December. The prosecutor general claimed that a Chechen warlord, who was still being sought, had ordered the slaying in retaliation for a book Klebnikov had written about him. Journalists and press freedom advocates noted the lack of evidence linking the warlord to the case and the political convenience of implicating a Kremlin opponent. Despite requests from the U.S. government and the Klebnikov family, Russian officials would not share much information about the case or allow U.S. investigators to participate in the probe. The trial of the three suspects was to be held in secret at the request of prosecutors, who said classified information would be discussed. CPJ protested the move, noting that many courts have successfully protected state secrets by closing portions of testimony and by sealing evidence.
A positive note was sounded when the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, agreed to hear more cases related to press freedom. The court has the authority to review the verdicts of domestic courts, issue recommendations, and impose fines. In August, the court agreed to hear charges by Yuri and Zoya Kholodov that Russian authorities had failed to properly investigate and prosecute the murder of their son, Dmitry Kholodov, a reporter for the independent newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets who was killed in 1994 after investigating allegedly corrupt military leaders. Six defendants, four of them military officers, were tried in Russian courts but repeatedly acquitted.
Throughout Russia and the region, politicized criminal investigations have become the favored method of silencing critical media. In September, authorities in the city of Nizhny Novgorod filed two criminal cases against the independent human rights newspaper Pravo-Zashchita in retaliation for its publishing statements by Chechen rebels calling for peace talks. Federal Tax Service and local police opened a criminal investigation into the newspaper’s publisher on tax-evasion charges. Prosecutors charged Editor-in-Chief Stanislav Dmitriyevsky with having incited ethnic and religious hatred by including the statements in the paper’s March and April 2004 editions. His trial began in November; he faces up to five years in prison if convicted. Dmitriyevsky and some of his colleagues also received anonymous death threats during the year.
Foreign correspondents faced growing harassment from regional authorities, particularly when the Kremlin was engaged in diplomatic disputes with neighboring countries. In May, police detained a crew from Latvian public television LTV in a town near the Latvian border and attackers damaged the crew’s car while Russian and Latvian authorities were holding sensitive border demarcation negotiations. Later that month, police and Federal Security Service (FSB) agents expelled three journalists from the Polish public television station TVP in the southern republic of Ingushetia after Polish authorities called on the Kremlin to investigate Soviet atrocities during World War II.
Prosecutors increasingly used criminal libel laws to silence criticism of government officials. On June 6, an arbitration court in the central city of Smolensk convicted independent journalist Nikolai Goshko on charges of criminal defamation. Goshko was sentenced to five years in a penal colony for defaming three Smolensk officials in a July 2000 broadcast on the independent station Radio Vesna. He was released in August after an appeals court reduced the charge to criminal insult. On June 22, an arbitration court in the southern city of Saratov convicted Eduard Abrosimov of criminal defamation and sentenced him to seven months in a penal colony for defaming public officials in two articles published in national and local newspapers in 2004, according to local press reports. An appeals court upheld the verdict but released Abrosimov after he had served six and a half months.
The Kremlin restricted the ability of Russian and foreign reporters to cover the war in the southern republic of Chechnya. Foreign broadcasters faced growing government pressure in retaliation for their reporting. The Foreign Ministry criticized London-based independent television broadcaster Channel 4 and Stockholm’s independent news agency TT for carrying interviews with Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basayev in February and March, respectively. In August, the ministry barred journalists with the U.S. television network ABC from speaking with government officials and said it would not renew their accreditation after the network broadcast an interview with Basayev. The Foreign Ministry also repeatedly pressed authorities in Sweden to shut down the server of the Chechen news Web site KavkazCenter, but the site was still operating in late 2005.
The Foreign Ministry continued to obstruct international news coverage of the war by denying visas to some foreign correspondents and accreditation to local journalists working for foreign news agencies. The ministry refused to issue credentials to journalists from the North Caucasus service of U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).
The few journalists in the North Caucasus who continued reporting independently on the war endured harassment by local authorities. Yuri Bagrov, an RFE/RL reporter based in North Ossetia, remained virtually stranded in the city of Vladikavkaz throughout most of the year after FSB agents and prosecutors manufactured a criminal case against him in 2004, stripping him of his Russian citizenship and identity documents. It was impossible for Bagrov to pass through the numerous security checkpoints without those papers. FSB agents and police officers repeatedly threatened Bagrov and prevented him from reporting on local public events. Bagrov believed he was persecuted because of his reporting on politically sensitive issues, such as FSB links to a string of unsolved abductions in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia. Bagrov received a temporary identity document in October that allowed him to leave the city and travel within Russia.
Police reported no progress in the investigation into the July 2003 abduction in Ingushetia of Ali Astamirov, an Agence France-Presse correspondent who had endured months of police and FSB harassment in retaliation for his reporting in Chechnya.
Critical reporting on the Chechen war, Putin’s overall performance, corruption, and terrorism has become rare in the past five years. Overt pressure by the FSB, bureaucratic obstruction, politicized lawsuits, and hostile corporate takeovers have enabled the Kremlin to intimidate and silence many of its critics. Authorities in the region denied journalists access to basic information, and used their control of printing, newspaper distribution, and broadcasting facilities to restrict news reporting.
The Kremlin was unnerved by the Orange Revolution that swept reformist Viktor Yushchenko to power in neighboring Ukraine in December 2004. Fearing the challenge by ordinary Ukrainians to a Soviet-style regime could inspire opposition activists, pro-democracy organizations, and the independent media in Russia, Putin intensified restrictions on reformist organizations and formed a pro-Kremlin youth group, Nashi, to crack down on young pro-democracy activists.
The Kremlin expanded its considerable control of the three national television channels to promote Putin’s image as a strong leader. In June, it tested a 24-hour satellite-TV news channel broadcasting in English to promote a more positive image of Russia abroad. Called Russia Today, the channel went on the air in December. Domestic audiences also received two new pro-Kremlin television channels. In February, the Defense Ministry launched the television channel Zvezda, which carries military and patriotic films and propaganda. In July, the Russian Orthodox Church launched the religious satellite-TV channel Spas.
Accusations of political censorship of broadcast media escalated in May, when 1,500 Moscow protestors demanded greater freedom on the airwaves, and again in June, when a coalition of liberal, communist, and right-wing parties called on the Kremlin to relax restrictions on broadcast media.
Two potential opposition candidates for the 2008 presidential election faced troubles from state and private pro-Kremlin media. Former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov endured a politicized criminal investigation and media smear campaign during the summer, while world chess champion Gary Kasparov was denied substantive coverage on the powerful state-controlled national channels.
Companies with close ties to the Kremlin bought an influential television station and some of the few remaining newspapers that criticized Putin. The acquisitions were seen as efforts by Kremlin allies to prepare media coverage of what was expected to be a Kremlin-orchestrated handover of the presidency to a chosen successor in 2008.
Two Kremlin allies bought another influential Moscow-based television station, which had provided relatively independent news. The steel and automotive group Severstal and the oil company Surgutneftegaz each purchased a 35 percent stake in Ren-TV during the summer and installed a Kremlin-friendly management in October. In November, Ren-TV managers dismissed outspoken news anchor Olga Romanova after she publicly criticized the station in a radio interview for censoring her news coverage about politically sensitive topics that might anger the Kremlin. One such story was the decision by authorities not to prosecute the son of Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov for a fatal car accident in May.
A booming oil industry and enormous corporate wealth lifted the advertising revenues of large broadcasters, but political controls and widespread self-censorship prevented financial independence from translating into independent editorial policies. Only the Moscow-based radio station Ekho Moskvy, which was taken over by a subsidiary of the state natural-gas monopoly Gazprom in 2001, has retained editorial independence in the national broadcast media. Its journalists own a significant stake in the company.
The Kremlin has allowed a number of independent newspapers and news Web sites to engage in lively debate and government criticism, but these are read by a relatively small, well-educated urban audience. Pressure on print media increased in September 2004 following news reports of official mismanagement during a hostage crisis in the southern city of Beslan. Raf Shakirov, editor-in-chief of the leading Moscow daily Izvestia, was forced to resign after government officials angered by the paper’s coverage of the Beslan school siege put pressure on the daily’s owner, the pro-Kremlin Prof Media. Izvestia published graphic photos of the assault to free the hostages in which more than 400 people were killed. It was also one of the first media outlets to criticize the government for claiming that only 350 people had been taken captive when journalists at the scene put the number at more than 1,000.
During the latter part of 2005, companies and businessmen friendly to the Kremlin further restricted the national print media by purchasing three influential newspapers that had remained critical of the government. In June, Gazprom purchased Izvestia and five months later appointed a pro-Kremlin editor. In August, Deputy Trade Minister Konstantin Remchukov bought the daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta. In October, Moscow-born businessman Arkady Gaidamak purchased the independent Moscow weekly Moskovskiye Novosti. Gaidamak said that media should not criticize the government, The Moscow Times reported.