Russia’s Journalists

Joel Simon
Letter to the Editor
International Herald Tribune
May 5, 2008

President-elect Dmitri Medvedev of Russia will have many advantages when he takes the reins from Vladimir Putin this week. Bolstered by record oil prices, the country’s economic outlook is fairly upbeat. Popular support for the new government is high, thanks largely to Putin’s legacy.

But in at least one area Russia’s record is abysmal: bringing the killers of journalists to justice. Fourteen journalists were murdered during the eight years that Putin held office. Justice has been served in only one of the cases, and although five men were convicted in the murder of Novaya Gazeta’s Igor Domnikov, the mastermind of the killing is still at large.

This dubious record helps explain why Russia earned a top ranking on the Committee to Protect Journalists‘ Impunity Index, a new study released on April 30 at the United Nations in New York. It is a ranking of the countries where the killers of journalists go free.

Many of the countries on the list are engulfed by war – countries like Iraq, Somalia and Sri Lanka. But in Russia, a country that likes to tout its democratic credentials, journalists are gunned down far from any war zone.

The climate of violence has contributed to an atmosphere of fear among the few remaining media outlets that continue to publicly challenge the government. Reporting on the conflict in Chechnya has all but disappeared since the murder of the Novaya Gazeta investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya in 2006.

In his annual press conference in February, Putin for the first time praised Politkovskaya’s journalism and promised to bring her killers to justice. Now, it appears he will step down as president without achieving this goal.

Thus it falls to Medvedev to reverse this legacy. He can do so by demonstrating a firm commitment to pursuing justice and ensuring the prosecutors do not receive mixed messages about the importance of these investigations.

With 13 unsolved murders, Russia currently ranks ninth of CPJ’s Impunity Index. There is only one way for Russia to reduce its ranking, and that is by bringing the killers of journalists to justice. CPJ will be publishing an updated version of the Impunity Index in 2009. We hope we see progress.

Joel Simon,
New York Executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists

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