Murder pushes Novaya Gazeta to request guns

In a November 2007 interview, just before receiving CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award, Dmitry Muratov, the editor of the embattled Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, recalled the loss of three colleagues to work-related murders in six years. “We have suffered war-like casualties,” Muratov said. 

First, Igor Domnikov was murdered: “They beat him to death using hammers at the entrance of his apartment building.” Then Muratov’s deputy, Yuri Shchekochikhin, died from mysterious poisoning: “Within one week, he turned from a youthful man into a frail, old person with no hair on his head and at one-third of his normal weight.” Then Anna Politkovskaya was shot to death.

Dmitry Muratov at an undated Novaya Gazeta staff meeting. (Novaya Gazeta)
Dmitry Muratov at an undated Novaya Gazeta staff meeting. (Novaya Gazeta)

“These were three pillars, three islands, on which the newspaper was standing–Domnikov, Shchekochikhin, and Politkovskaya,” Muratov concluded. The portraits of the three hang from a wall in Novaya‘s main lobby–silent participants in the staff meetings that take place there at least twice a week around a large wooden table.

On Monday, Novaya suffered one more “battle casualty”–25-year-old Anastasiya Baburova, a student in her last year studying journalism at Moscow State University who had worked for the paper part-time since October, covering the rise of ultranationalist groups in Russia, was shot and killed in downtown Moscow. Baburova was talking to human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov after a news conference he had given to criticize the early release of a Russian ex-colonel imprisoned for committing a grave crime in Chechnya. It was 3 p.m. on a busy street when the journalist and the lawyer were approached by an unknown gunman. He first shot Markelov in the back of the head, then shot Baburova when she tried to intervene. Markelov died at the scene; Baburova, several hours later at a Moscow hospital.

Baburova’s murder seems to have been the last straw for Novaya Gazeta, the last act to lay bare the harsh truth–that despite government pledges that journalists will be protected, that rule of law is an utmost priority of the Medvedev-Putin administration, that crimes against reporters will be investigated to the end–journalists (and now their lawyers, too) in Russia are at risk of being slaughtered brazenly, in broad daylight, and with impunity.

And so yesterday’s announcement by Novaya Gazeta shareholder Aleksandr Lebedev that the paper intends to appeal for official permission to carry weapons comes as no surprise, at least to me. “The FSB [Federal Security Service] has a share of responsibility about what happens to Novaya Gazeta,” Lebedev told journalists at a press conference in Moscow. “If the FSB is unable to guarantee the protection and safety of our journalists, we will try to defend them ourselves.”

In an interview for the independent radio station Ekho Moskvy, Muratov never directly confirmed that he agreed with Lebedev; instead he gave listeners food for thought: “You tell me. … We have three options. The first one–to leave and turn off the lights … The second–to stop working. In other words, to stop writing about the special services, corruption, drugs, construction, fascists; to stop investigating the crimes of the powerful structures. Just to stop working! … The third option is to somehow defend ourselves. The state cannot defend us. It just cannot! It has gigantic defense budgets, a huge number of agencies. But, in general, it is busy doing its own business.”

Later in the interview, Muratov described the work conditions for independent reporters in Russia as worse than war-like. “This is a terror,” he said, “a terror against those who maintain and defend an independent position. These murderers, and all their curators and masterminds … feel confident in their license to kill.”

I understand the frustration in the face of unchecked violence against your own, the bottomless grief that turns to anger, the urge to react in unconventional, perhaps extreme ways. (All the more when the conventional ways simply don’t work). When a paper loses four journalists to murders those are extreme circumstances. And desperate times call for desperate measures, or so the saying goes.

Would carrying a gun help? Ultimately, the enemies of the free press in Russia will not be defeated with weapons in the streets, by the metro stop where Anastasiya Baburova was slain, in the apartment building entrance where Igor Domnikov was bludgeoned to death, or by the elevator where Anna Politkovskaya was shot. These killers must be fought in a court of law, in trials open to the public and the press, by independent judges and fairly selected juries. And they must be defeated.