Violent Censorship

Violent Censorship
By Ann Cooper

The Moscow Times

July 7 , 2005

The defiant Boris Yeltsin atop an armored vehicle during the Soviet coup attempt of August 1991 is one of the iconic images of our time. Those of us who lived in Moscow that summer were able to see the Yeltsin image only because a small band of Gosteleradio journalists took a series of risks to film it and smuggle it on the air. Broadcast on “Vremya” the first night of the putsch, the image sent a supremely important message to a frightened nation: A coup was under way, yes, but so was peaceful, political resistance. That resistance would prevail over the coup’s hard-line communist leaders.

The Yeltsin image was broadcast in an era of courageous journalism. It was the time of “Vzglyad,” a public affairs show so hip, honest and sensational that millions routinely canceled Friday night plans to stay home glued to the tube. Tired Soviet publications such as Ogonyok suddenly were free to look at the world with newly curious eyes. Who can forget Artyom Borovik’s searing Afghan journal, offering Ogonyok readers the first glimpse of the truth about Soviet military actions in the Afghan war?

During glasnost, courageous journalism pried open closed doors to history, sparked vigorous debates on multiparty democracy and encouraged Soviet citizens to speak freely after seven decades of repressive silence.

But in today’s Russia, courageous journalists are endangered. Since 2000, a dozen journalists have been murdered in Russia in contract-style killings. Prosecutors have proclaimed one of those cases “solved” — the July 2004 shooting of Russian-American Paul Klebnikov on the streets of Moscow. Even that resolution is in doubt since officials have declined to show evidence to support their claim.

This deplorable record of unsolved cases has prompted my organization, the Committee to Protect Journalists, to travel to Moscow this week. CPJ, an independent, nonprofit press freedom group, has invited relatives and colleagues of murdered journalists from across Russia to meet in Moscow with us and with Russian lawyers and press freedom activists.

Our goal is clear: We seek justice in all of the cases of murdered journalists. The reason is compelling: Without justice, this alarming pattern of journalist murders is likely to continue, with terrible repercussions for the media and for the Russian public.

Without justice, self-censorship intensifies, particularly in the broadcast media. Reporting on basic public issues is increasingly restricted, and the public is kept in the dark about corruption, crime and human rights abuses.

Authorities occasionally claim progress in these murder investigations, but those assertions are not accompanied by genuine steps that bring perpetrators to justice. In October 2003, for example, authorities in Tolyatti arrested a local factory worker in the murder of Tolyattinskoye Obozreniye editor Alexei Sidorov that month. But the defendant was eventually acquitted in a trial that exposed serious flaws in the prosecution’s case.

In mid-June, the Prosecutor General’s Office announced that a Chechen separatist leader was responsible for ordering the July 2004 slaying of Klebnikov, the Forbes Russia editor. Yet the prosecutor’s office has presented no supporting evidence, leaving its claim open to wide skepticism.

With most of these unsolved cases stagnating and prosecutors ignoring the journalists’ families and colleagues, Russia’s poor press climate is declining at an alarming rate.

On June 29, Magomedzagid Varisov, a prominent journalist and political analyst, was gunned down in a contract-style killing in Makhachkala, Dagestan. Varisov’s editor at the Makhachkala-based Novoye Delo, Rumina Elmurzayeva, told CPJ the journalist had received threats, was being followed and had unsuccessfully sought help from the local police.

Nikolai Goshko, a journalist who was supposed to attend our Moscow meeting, has been imprisoned. Goshko worked with Sergei Novikov, the owner of Smolensk’s independent Radio Vesna who was killed in the stairwell of his apartment three days after alleging corruption in the deputy governor’s office. Goshko was convicted of criminal libel on June 6 for accusing Smolensk officials of masterminding the murder. While Goshko serves a five-year prison term, no one has been brought to justice in Novikov’s murder.

Russia’s leading press freedom activists say that politicization and corruption in the criminal justice system are part of the problem. “Police and prosecutors won’t fully investigate crimes if they believe the authorities are implicated,” says Oleg Panfilov, director of the Moscow-based Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations.

This pattern of lawlessness and ineffective law enforcement also reflects political priorities.

“Law enforcement officials lack the will to fulfill their mission … for the simple reason that the Kremlin has no policy on this issue,” says Alexei Simonov, director of the Moscow-based Glasnost Defense Fund.

With President Vladimir Putin attending the Group of Eight summit in Scotland and preparing to assume the G8 chairmanship in 2006, this is the moment for the Kremlin to address the pattern of unsolved murders and make a public commitment to solving these cases.

History shows that courageous journalism can enhance a nation’s economic development, political stability and international stature. Without it, the Kremlin and the international community are blind to the insidious effects of government corruption, organized crime, human rights violations, election abuses, and trafficking in drugs, arms and humans.

The Kremlin can rebuild public and international confidence by enforcing its most basic laws — protecting the lives and safety of its citizens including journalists, and punishing those who murder.

Ann Cooper is executive director of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. She covered the final years of the former Soviet Union as Moscow bureau chief for National Public Radio. She contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.