Corrupt Russian police are a ‘dark force’ against press

Leonid Nikitinsky has a dry sense of humor. “Unless you are killed in a very interesting way, don’t come and see me,” he told an audience at CPJ’s offices on Thursday. There are, after all, too many murders for him to cover, said Nikitinsky, right, a court reporter for Russia’s Novaya Gazeta.

He has seen his share of death and violence over the years, much of it at his own newspaper. In the past nine years, four Novaya Gazeta journalists have been murdered. Impunity in journalist killings is nearly complete in Russia, made possible by what Nikitinsky said is the absence of a functioning legal system. “The court is used as a hammer in the hand of the executive branch,” he said; it ignores crimes as it sees fit, and actively works to shutter newspapers and NGOs.

Describing the emergence of a corrupt federal police department as “a dark force that can break into your house at any moment,” Nikitinsky said authorities are deploying large numbers of undercover officers to watch reporters and are confiscating computers in the name of checking for pirated software but with the intent of immobilizing a newspaper. Ties to criminals in the police system are deep and unforgiving for the independent media, he stressed–and the rise of fascism in Russia is another increasing source of attacks on journalists.

Nikitinsky appeared as part of CPJ’s series of luncheon discussions for journalists and supporters. In New York to receive the Integrity in Journalism Award from the Paul Klebnikov Fund, Nikitinsky has been a leader in Russian legal reporting. He is a driving force behind a court reporters guild that supports legal and investigative journalism, and a leader of a legal information network with correspondents in 40 Russian regions.

He named two reasons why journalists are killed in his country: One, they know something sensitive. “If I learn something explosive, I tell as many people as I can so there is no reason to murder me,” he told his audience, most of whom chuckled. The other reason is to make a show of power–this was why Anastasiya Baburova, a young reporter for Novaya Gazeta, and Stanislav Markelov, a human rights lawyer, were shot and killed together in January, he said.

Asked whether he was frustrated by the lack of action in crimes against the press, Nikitinsky had a strong response: He finds it more frustrating that no matter what he and his colleagues write, whatever corruption they expose or investigations they advance through reporting, “nothing ever happens.”