Attacks on the Press 2006: Russia


As Russia assumed a world leadership role, chairing the Group of Eight leading industrialized nations and the Council of Europe’s powerful committee of ministers, the Kremlin cracked down on dissent and shrugged off astounding attacks on critics and journalists. In a grim year for the press, parliament passed a measure to hush media criticism by calling it “extremism,” and an assassin silenced Anna Politkovskaya, the internationally known reporter who exposed government abuses in Chechnya.

On the eve of the G8 summit in St. Petersburg in July, parliament passed a bill broadening the definition of extremism to include media criticism of public officials. President Vladimir Putin soon signed the measure over the objections of media and human rights groups. CPJ likened the measure—which said extremist activity includes “public slander directed toward figures fulfilling the state duties of the Russian Federation”—to the catchall laws used in Soviet times to prosecute critics. The crackdown on dissent had begun in January when Putin signed a measure restricting the activities of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The law gave the Justice Ministry vast authority to shutter organizations for engaging in activities that run counter to the “political independence of the Russian Federation.” Ten months later, authorities used the broadly worded law to close the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, a human rights center and publisher.

Politkovskaya, 48, had survived dozens of assignments in conflict-ravaged Chechnya, but she did not survive a trip to a Moscow grocery store. She was killed in her apartment building on October 7, the 13th journalist to be slain, contract style, in Putin’s Russia. All of the cases remained unsolved, a record of impunity that helped make Russia the third deadliest country in the world for journalists, CPJ found in a 2006 special report, “Deadly News.”

Politkovskaya, special correspondent for Moscow’s independent Novaya Gazeta, was regarded as one of the most knowledgeable experts on the war in Chechnya—a conflict greatly underreported in Russian media. For seven years, Politkovskaya endured threats, imprisonment, forced exile, and poisoning to chronicle the plight of Chechen civilians at the hands of federal troops, rebel forces, and the Kremlin-backed Chechen militia. In her reporting, Politkovskaya exposed human rights abuses, disappearances, corruption, torture, and murder. She sharply criticized Kremlin-backed Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov in her writing and in numerous interviews with international media.

Security cameras at Politkovskaya’s apartment building and market caught a blurred image of her killer, a man in a dark baseball cap. At around 4 p.m., according to news reports and CPJ interviews, he followed her home and watched her unload several bags of groceries from her sedan. As she emerged from her elevator to retrieve the rest, the assassin shot her in the chest and head with a 9mm handgun fitted with a silencer. He dropped the pistol, its serial number erased, next to her body and strolled away. A neighbor discovered the body about a half hour later; investigators retrieved four bullets.

Within days, Novaya Gazeta received hundreds of letters from Politkovskaya’s readers, sources, colleagues, and supporters. “She was our voice, our pen, and Russia’s conscience. Left without her, where do we go?” asked one reader from Chechnya.

Politkovskaya’s last report, unpublished at the time of her death, said Chechen law enforcement officials had tortured young Chechen men into confessing to crimes they never committed. “When prosecutors and courts work not to punish the guilty but on political commission and with the only goal of pleasing the Kremlin with accounts of combating terrorism, criminal cases are popping like cakes from an oven,” Politkovskaya wrote.

At a press conference in Germany three days after the assassination, Putin downplayed the killing by saying that Politkovskaya had “insignificant” impact in Russia. He brushed off the possibility of any official involvement in the killing, suggesting instead that it was the product of an overseas conspiracy designed to undermine the Kremlin. He cited “solid evidence” that these unnamed conspirators planned to “sacrifice someone to create a wave of anti-Russian sentiment internationally.”

Conspiracy theories abounded a month later when former Russian spy Aleksandr Litvinenko died in London, a victim of an extraordinary case of radiation poisoning. Litvinenko had been investigating Politkovskaya’s murder when he was somehow poisoned by a rare substance known as polonium 210. From his own deathbed, Litvinenko’s family said, he dictated a statement that accused the Kremlin of ordering the poisoning. Meeting with European Union leaders in Helsinki, Putin called the ex-spy’s death a tragedy but lamented that it was being used for “political provocation.”

Politkovskaya was herself poisoned en route to the 2004 Beslan school hostage crisis, putting her in the hospital and preventing her from covering the deadly siege.

Under Putin, the Kremlin has restricted domestic and international reporting from Chechnya, imposing travel and content restrictions and harassing reporters. From the onset of the war in 1999, the Media Ministry banned Russian television networks from broadcasting interviews with Chechen rebel leaders. Journalists such as Yuri Bagrov, a correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, have been stripped of press credentials in retaliation for their reporting. A 2005 CPJ special report, “Rebels and Reporters,” cited more than 60 instances of government harassment, obstruction, and legal action against journalists in Chechnya.

The government’s aggressive tactics continued in 2006. A court in Nizhny Novgorod convicted Stanislav Dmitriyevsky, director of the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society and editor of its newspaper, Pravo-Zashchita (Rights Protection), on charges of “inciting ethnic hatred by using the mass media.” The February conviction stemmed from publication of two statements by Chechen rebel leaders calling for peace talks, which appeared in the March and April 2004 editions of Pravo-Zashchita. Dmitriyevsky was sentenced to probation, but authorities used the conviction and the new NGO law as basis for closing the society in October.

Chechnya remained an extraordinarily dangerous place. In August, the Russian human rights group Memorial reported 125 abductions in just seven months. That month, masked men seized Elina Ersenoyeva, correspondent for the independent weekly Chechenskoye Obshchestvo, in Chechnya’s capital, Grozny. Ersenoyeva reported on social issues, refugees, and, most recently, conditions in Grozny prisons, her editor, Timur Aliyev, told CPJ. Following the kidnapping, reports emerged that Ersenoyeva had been secretly, and some said forcibly, married to the notorious Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basayev. The separatist leader, who had claimed responsibility for hostage crises in Moscow and Beslan in which hundreds died, had been killed in an explosion in the republic of Ingushetia in July. Ersenoyeva’s status was not clear in late year.

Authorities reported no headway in solving the July 2003 abduction of Agence France-Presse correspondent Ali Astamirov in Ingushetia. Astamirov had endured months of police and security service harassment in retaliation for his reporting in Chechnya.

Deadly violence, investigative ineptitude, and judicial indifference remained sad hallmarks in Russian press cases; a second reporter was also killed in retaliation for his work. Vagif Kochetkov, 31, a reporter in the city of Tula, 125 miles (200 kilometers) south of Moscow, died at a local hospital on January 8 from head injuries suffered in an attack two weeks earlier. Kochetkov, a correspondent for the Moscow daily Trud and columnist for the local newspaper Tulsky Molodoi Kommunar, had written about drug trafficking and aggressive practices in the pharmaceutical industry. Colleagues said he received telephone threats prior to the attack, the Web site Newsinfo reported.

CPJ sources said a bag believed to contain Kochetkov’s passport, press card, credit card, and work-related documents were taken in the assault; his money and fur coat were not. Yet authorities did not focus on Kochetkov’s work, labeling the case a street robbery and bringing a local man, Yan Stakhanov, to trial on manslaughter charges. The trial was pending in late year.

CPJ continued to investigate the murders of two other journalists to determine whether the killings were work related. Ilya Zimin, correspondent for the national NTV network, was found beaten to death in his Moscow apartment on February 27. Yevgeny Gerasimenko, reporter for the weekly Saratovsky Rasklad, was found dead on July 26 in his apartment in the southeastern city of Saratov, a plastic bag over his head and multiple bruises on his body.

Prosecutors reported no developments in the disappearance of Maksim Maksimov, a 41-year-old investigative reporter for the St. Petersburg weekly Gorod, who was last seen on June 29, 2004, when he went to meet with a source in the city’s downtown district. Maksimov’s mother, Rimma Maksimova, told CPJ she was losing hope of learning what happened to her son.

Maksimov had reported on corruption in the St. Petersburg branch of the Interior Ministry and had investigated the killings of several prominent businessmen and politicians, including Galina Starovoitova, a parliamentary deputy shot in her apartment building in 1998, according to press reports and CPJ sources.

Even in high-profile cases such as the 2004 assassination of Paul Klebnikov, the American editor of Forbes Russia, the Russian justice system produced no immediate results. Two ethnic Chechens were tried in secret but acquitted in May amid allegations of jury intimidation and procedural violations. Court officials said the introduction of classified evidence required closing the trial to the public, rebuffing pleas by Klebnikov’s family and CPJ to close only those portions in which confidential information was to be reviewed. For four months following the verdict, Moscow City Court officials impeded the Klebnikov family’s appeal by failing to provide them with a trial transcript.

But in November, the Russian Supreme Court tossed out the acquittals and ordered that Kazbek Dukuzov and Musa Vakhayev be retried. CPJ called on authorities to open the new trial to the public. In a statement, the Klebnikovs called the ruling a “hopeful sign” and reiterated their desire that authorities fully investigate those who ordered the killing.

The prosecutor general’s office said the killing was ordered by Chechen separatist leader Khozh Akhmed Nukhayev, the subject of a critical 2003 book by Klebnikov, but it has not provided any evidence to support that assertion. Nukhayev’s whereabouts were unknown, although some Chechen experts said he died in the mountains of Dagestan in the months before Klebnikov’s murder.

Another unsolved case hit a roadblock. The European Court of Human Rights ruled in October that it could not take up an appeal filed by the parents of reporter Dmitry Kholodov, who was blown up by a booby-trapped briefcase in his office on October 17, 1994. The Strasbourg court said it did not have jurisdiction in the case because Russia did not ratify the European Convention on Human Rights until four years after Kholodov’s murder.

The ruling was a blow to Zoya and Yuri Kholodov’s 12-year effort to gain justice in their son’s killing. Kholodov, 27, a reporter for Moskovsky Komsomolets, had exposed high-level corruption in the Russian military. Six defendants, four of them military intelligence officers, were acquitted by Russian military courts in 2002 and 2004 of organizing and carrying out the assassination.

In addition to physical attacks, critical journalists throughout Russia endured legal and bureaucratic harassment in retaliation for their work. Vladimir Rakhmankov, editor of the Web site Kursiv in the central city of Ivanovo, was convicted of insulting the president in a May article headlined “Putin as Russia’s Phallic Symbol.” The story satirized Putin’s goal to boost the country’s birth rate, making a tongue-in-cheek reference to an increase in births among some species at the local zoo. Rakhmankov declared that the animals “immediately responded to the president’s appeal.” Authorities were not amused; investigators raided Kursiv’s newsroom, seized the paper’s computers, sealed the premises, searched Rakhmankov’s apartment, and confiscated his personal computer. Rakhmankov was fined 20,000 rubles (US$760), and his Web site went dark.

In August, a court in the western city of Kaliningrad ordered the opposition weekly Novye Kolyosa closed at the request of the federal media regulator Rosokhrankultura. The regulator claimed that the paper had disclosed secrets of a criminal investigation in a May 2005 series about the murder of a local businessman. Prosecutors also opened 16 criminal cases against Novye Kolyosa’s founder, Igor Rudnikov, and journalists Oleg Berezovsky, Aleksandr Berezovsky, and Dina Yakshina in response to the weekly’s critical reporting.

Authorities in Perm launched an intensive campaign of harassment against Permsky Obozrevatel, the city’s only independent newspaper. The business weekly regularly featured critical coverage of the local administration and analytical articles on corruption, privatization, and the redistribution of municipal property. Police raided the paper twice, once in May and again in August, confiscating servers, computers, disks, flash memory cards, staff records, and photographs. In August, all eight staffers were placed under criminal investigation for “insult,” “violating the right to private life,” and “disclosing state secrets.” In September, police arrested photographer Vladimir Korolyov on suspicion of disclosing state secrets. Authorities did not elaborate on the accusation.

Over the past five years, companies with close ties to the Kremlin have purchased several prominent independent broadcast and print outlets. The trend continued in September when the metals magnate Alisher Usmanov, a Kremlin ally, purchased Kommersant. The business daily had earned a reputation for analytical journalism often critical of the Kremlin. Usmanov told Kommersant journalists he would not interfere with editorial policy. But such acquisitions, along with the Kremlin’s tight control of national television, were widely seen as an effort to steer media coverage in advance of the 2008 presidential election.

The Central Election Commission in September rejected a call for a constitutional referendum that would have allowed Putin to run for a third term. The next month, Putin told a televised news conference that he would indeed not seek another term, but that he would remain involved in politics.