Attacks on the Press 2006: Europe and Central Asia Analysis

Getting away with murder in the former Soviet states
By Nina Ognianova

The assassin in a baseball cap who gunned down Anna Politkovskaya outside her Moscow apartment used a silencer. But reverberations from the contract-style slaying of Russia’s icon of investigative journalism were felt around the world.
The October 7 killing drew international attention to impunity, the scourge of journalists in the authoritarian nations of the former Soviet Union.

From Ukraine to Turkmenistan, 46 journalists have been murdered in the former Soviet states over the past 15 years, with 90 percent of the cases unsolved, according to CPJ research. The message from the authorities has been clear: When it comes to journalists, you can get away with murder. This has had the intended chilling effect on media coverage of sensitive issues of corruption, organized crime, human rights violations, and abuse of power in countries such as Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan, CPJ research shows.

Shielded by institutional secrecy, authorities make little effort to track down the killers. CPJ has documented case after case in Europe and Central Asia where investigators ignore journalism as a motive. Instead, they classify the killings as common crimes and label professional assassins “hooligans.” Prosecutors open and suspend investigations, rarely informing victims’ relatives and colleagues, who have to scramble for information or do their own forensic investigation. Detectives sometimes fail to study the dead journalist’s notebooks, computers, and tape recorders. They fail to interview all witnesses, then ignore the testimony of those they do interview. Investigations are closed “for lack of suspects” despite glaring evidence to the contrary.

Russia has the worst record of impunity among countries in the region. It is also the third deadliest country for journalists worldwide, according to “Deadly News,” a CPJ analysis of deaths over the past 15 years. Only Iraq, and Algeria when it was riven by civil war, outrank it.

Politkovskaya was the 13th journalist to be killed in a gangland-style hit since President Vladimir Putin entered the Kremlin in 2000. None of the masterminds behind those slayings have been prosecuted.

Politkovskaya was a thorn in Putin’s side, particularly for her dogged coverage of the Second Chechen War–a conflict underreported by mainstream Russian media and nearly forgotten by a public numbed by Kremlin-controlled national television. For seven years, she was threatened, imprisoned, forced into exile, and once even poisoned for her work. Yet she refused to stop or tone down her reporting on human rights abuses committed by federal troops, security forces, and Chechen militias in the southern republic of Chechnya.

Despite global media coverage, the Russian government said nothing for three days after the shooting of the award-winning reporter for Novaya Gazeta. Putin, pressed by reporters while on a visit to Germany, eventually broke the official silence with a verbal sideswipe. “I must say that her domestic political influence … was insignificant,” he said of Politkovskaya, a woman named by CPJ as one of the most prominent defenders of press freedom in the last 25 years.

Putin then effectively told prosecutors to rule out politicians and officials as suspects in any murder inquiry. “For current authorities in general and Chechen authorities in particular, Politkovskaya’s murder did more damage than her articles,” Putin said. “I cannot imagine that anybody currently in office could come to the idea of organizing such a brutal crime.” He said the murder was ordered by overseas conspirators “to create a wave of anti-Russian sentiment internationally,” the news agency Interfax reported.

Yelena Tregubova, a former Kremlin correspondent and author of a best-selling book critical of the government’s attempts to muzzle the press, said anyone seeking to step into Politkovskaya’s shoes “will be taking on a suicide mission.” Tregubova, expelled from the Kremlin press corps in 2001 for refusing to follow government directives on coverage, had a bomb explode outside her Moscow apartment in 2004. Police classified the explosion as an act of hooliganism.

Even where those suspected of killing a journalist were brought to trial, court proceedings were secretive and riddled with abuses. The trial of two men accused of the July 2004 assassination of American Paul Klebnikov in Moscow was just such an instance. The accused were tried behind closed doors and acquitted in May of killing Klebnikov, the editor of Forbes Russia. The prosecution complained of procedural violations, jury intimidation, and misconduct by court officials who stalled an appeal by withholding the transcript of the closed hearings. In November, the Supreme Court overturned the acquittal and ordered a retrial.

Russia remains the political and moral force in much of the region, so its official hostility to independent media, sloppy police work in the investigation of journalists’ deaths, official stonewalling, and judicial inertia are widely emulated.

In Azerbaijan, President Ilham Aliyev called the March 2005 assassination of journalist Elmar Huseynov a “provocation against the Azerbaijani state” and an “act of terrorism.”

Strong words, but local journalists believe authorities have treated the case as a political tool and have no intention of identifying the real killers. Huseynov, founder and editor of the opposition newsweekly Monitor, was gunned down in a professional-style hit in his apartment building in the capital, Baku. A harsh critic of the president and his administration, Huseynov had endured scores of politicized lawsuits, tax inspections, and suspensions during the weekly’s six-year existence.

Accusations have flown about with little substance or follow-up. A month after the killing, investigators identified two Georgian citizens as suspects but never provided enough evidence to persuade officials in Georgia to extradite them. The trail soon grew cold. Then, in July, a former Azerbaijani Interior Ministry officer, on trial on unrelated charges, professed that he helped plot Huseynov’s assassination.

Huseynov’s colleagues are skeptical about this latest allegation. Shahla Ismailova of the Baku-based Human Rights House told CPJ: “If they want to make someone ‘confess’ to a wrongdoing, they will succeed. Detainees in Azerbaijani prisons are subjected to torture. And under such pressure, anyone can confess to anything.” Ismailova doubted the authorities wanted to solve the crime. “All of Elmar’s work was [about] exposing the corrupt regime in Azerbaijan, and this is why an objective investigation cannot be expected from our current authorities.”

Turan news agency Director Mehman Aliyev, who has been following the Huseynov case closely, told CPJ that Azerbaijani journalists do not expect the current inquiry to lead to prosecution. “According to police statistics, authorities have high rates of solved street crimes, but when it comes to attacks against journalists, none of them are solved,” Aliyev said. “This shows that authorities are simply not interested in finding the killers or attackers of journalists. This is their unwritten policy.” In such conditions, Aliyev added, editors of independent and opposition publications are sometimes forced to instruct reporters to tone down their coverage for safety reasons.

Aleksandr Starikevich, editor of the opposition newspaper Solidarnost in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, is also skeptical of the official probe into the October 2004 murder of co-worker Veronika Cherkasova. Colleagues of Cherkasova launched their own investigation into her death, saying officials treated the killing as a common crime and ignored forensic evidence pointing to a professional slaying. CPJ continues to investigate the case.

“The investigation went in a wrong direction from the start, and then got stuck on the ‘common crime’ version,” Starikevich said in an interview in the independent daily Komsomolskaya Pravda v Belorussii (Komsomol’s Truth in Belarus). “I believe Veronika was killed for her work.”

Two years after Cherkasova was found in her Minsk apartment with multiple stab wounds, prosecutors said they had suspended the investigation for lack of suspects. A Minsk investigator said the killing did not appear premeditated and continued to refer to it as a common crime, allegedly the result of a domestic quarrel, according to Belarusian press reports.

Authorities ignored her articles on surveillance by the Belarusian state security service (KGB) and her investigation of alleged arms sales by Belarus to former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Instead, the official investigation focused on the journalist’s teenage son as a suspect and pressured him to confess to killing his mother.

Close to the second anniversary of Cherkasova’s death, the Agency for Journalistic Investigations, an association of Belarusian reporters, released the findings of its own probe. Contrary to the official version, the association said the murder appeared to have been carried out by a professional who made it look like a crime of passion. The assassin, the report said, covered his tracks skillfully. Although stabbed repeatedly, Cherkasova had died from a single wound. Investigators have ignored the findings of the agency’s investigation.

In Turkmenistan, even after a journalist died in official custody, authorities refused to investigate. Ogulsapar Muradova, 58, a correspondent for the Turkmen service of the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), was arrested on June 18 and held incommunicado for more than two months in an Ashgabat jail. A day after her arrest, President Saparmurat Niyazov called her a traitor to the motherland on national television. In August, she was convicted on a bogus charge of possessing ammunition and sentenced to six years in jail after a closed-door trial that lasted only minutes. Three weeks later, authorities released Muradova’s body to her family, refusing to give the time and cause of death and denying requests for an autopsy.

Muradova’s relatives said the body bore a large head wound and multiple neck bruises. To this day, Turkmenistan has ignored international calls for an independent inquiry into Muradova’s death, while media and human rights advocates are convinced that she was murdered in prison because of her work for RFE/RL–a broadcaster that Niyazov, who died in December, considered an enemy. Journalists affiliated with the Turkmen service, CPJ research shows, have endured years of harassment–from threats and surveillance to torture and imprisonment. Some have been forced into exile.

One glimmer of hope in the fight against impunity in the region has emerged in Ukraine. Myroslava Gongadze, widow of slain Internet journalist Georgy Gongadze, has made some headway in bringing his killers to justice.

Georgy Gongadze, the 31-year-old editor of the independent online newspaper Ukrainska Pravda, which criticized former President Leonid Kuchma, disappeared on September 16, 2000. Several weeks later, his headless body was discovered in a forest outside Kyiv.

“After months and years of fruitless struggle with Ukraine’s prosecutor general’s office, I realized that my husband’s disappearance would not be fully investigated as long as President Kuchma remained in power,” Myroslava Gongadze told CPJ. “I decided to use any available international mechanism to fight Ukrainian authorities.”

Gongadze launched an international campaign for an investigation into her husband’s death. The European Court of Human Rights agreed in March 2005 to hear her case and ruled in her favor eight months later. The court sent a strong message, finding that Ukrainian authorities failed in their duty to protect the editor’s life, failed to thoroughly investigate his death, and treated the Gongadze family in a degrading manner. Gongadze was awarded 100,000 euros (US$132,700) in damages.

Her campaign also helped propel the 2004 Orange Revolution, which overthrew Kuchma. “The new president of Ukraine, Viktor Yushchenko, came to power with my husband’s name on his flags,” Gongadze said. “He promised that those responsible for Georgy’s murder would be brought to justice in two months.”

Justice did not come as quickly as she had hoped. “I have to admit that all this pressure brought some progress,” Gongadze said, noting that three former police officers were on trial for the murder. “But I’m afraid that I do not see a political will in Ukraine today to bring the officials accused of ordering this crime to justice.”

Still, she said, “My struggle is not over and I’ve promised to do everything I can, and I will, even if sometimes it feels as if it is hopeless.”

Gongadze is convinced that mobilizing the international community was key to her success. “It is important to establish a precedent because every unsolved journalist killing triggers new killings.”

Setting a precedent is the goal of Moscow lawyer Karen Nersisian, who represents the families of several slain Russian journalists, including that of Novaya Gazeta journalist Igor Domnikov, a colleague of Politkovskaya. Domnikov was shot, contract style, in Moscow in 2000 after he wrote articles critical of a regional governor. Three suspects in Domnikov’s killing are currently on trial in Kazan, the capital of the Russian republic of Tatarstan. “We are doing everything possible to get the masterminds. We know who they are and I believe we can get them,” Nersisian told CPJ. “If we succeed, this will be an important victory, not only for Russia but for the entire region.” Nersisian took part in a CPJ conference in Moscow in July 2005 that brought together the relatives and colleagues of journalists assassinated in Russia since 2000.

Oleg Panfilov, head of the Moscow-based press freedom group Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, said that in their struggle for justice, regional journalists needed the support of organizations such as CPJ. “International advocacy must continue,” Panfilov told CPJ. “Local authorities do not listen to our declarations. They do not pay attention to our protests. They only react to international statements and criticisms, and those should continue. There is just no other alternative.”

Impunity for the killers of journalists has dealt a severe blow to already fragile press freedoms in Russia and the other nations of the former Soviet Union. The perception that murderers go free has perpetuated the cycle of violence against reporters who cover sensitive subjects and pushed even courageous journalists toward self-censorship. The public has suffered as a result, having been kept in the dark about human rights abuses, corruption, high-level crime, and, in the case of Chechnya, an ongoing war.