Putin pledges to protect journalists

New York, February 1, 2007—Responding to an international outcry over the murder of Russia’s top investigative reporter, President Vladimir Putin vowed today to protect the press, a pledge welcomed by the Committee to Protect Journalists.

For the first time Putin also acknowledged the importance of the work of Anna Politkovskaya, whose murder in October put the spotlight on Russia’s growing failure to successfully prosecute the killers of journalists.

“For our country … the issue of journalist persecution is one of the most pressing. And we realize our degree of responsibility in this,” Putin said at his annual news conference in the Kremlin’s Round Hall. “We will do everything to protect the press corps.”

A CPJ delegation led by managing editor of The Wall Street Journal and CPJ chairman Paul Steiger and board member Norman Pearlstine urged the authorities to address the issue of impunity during meetings in Moscow last month. Last week representatives of the Russian Foreign Ministry told the CPJ delegation that the prosecutor general was looking into the possible involvement of police officials in Chechnya in the Politkovskaya murder.

“We are encouraged by President Putin’s acknowledgment of the lack of justice and safety for journalists in Russia today,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “We welcome his promise to protect the press and the best way to achieve that is to successfully prosecute those responsible for the murder of journalists.”

Putin, who spoke for more than three hours with some 1,000 foreign and domestic reporters, singled out the assassinations of Politkovskaya, special correspondent of the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, and Paul Klebnikov, the American editor of Forbes-Russia.

“I remember not only Anna Politkovskaya – she was a rather sharp critic of authorities, and this is good – I remember other journalists, too, including Paul Klebnikov,” Putin said. “Recently one of our American partners said some very true words: ’Paul Klebnikov died for a democratic Russia, for the development of democracy in Russia,’ I completely agree with this assessment.”

Putin’s remarks on Politkovskaya were in contrast to his first reaction to her killing where he played down the significance of her work saying, “her influence on political life in Russia was minimal.”

Politkovskaya, who was shot in her Moscow apartment building on October 7, was the thirteenth journalist to be killed in Russia, execution-style, since Putin took office in 2000. No one has ever been convicted of killing these journalists, CPJ research shows.

Of the thirteen murders, only those of Igor Domnikov, Aleksei Sidorov, and Paul Klebnikov resulted in arrests and trials of suspects. However, even then, prosecutions have failed to secure convictions. Two men accused of killing Klebnikov, the Forbes Russia editor shot and killed outside his Moscow office on July 9, 2004, were acquitted in May 2006 after a trial marred by procedural irregularities. The Russian Supreme Court later overturned the verdict and ordered a new trial, but the suspects are not in custody. During its visit to Moscow, CPJ called on authorities to ensure that the suspects are brought to a new trial as ordered by the court.

Russia is the third deadliest country in the world for journalists over the past 15 years, behind only the conflict-ridden countries of Iraq and Algeria, according to a recent CPJ study.