Attacks on the Press 2009: Russia

Top Developments
• International community intensifies pressure to halt impunity.
• Authorities restart investigations into Klebnikov, Politkovskaya murders.

Key Statistic
19: Journalists murdered in retaliation for their work since 2000. Murder convictions have been won in one case.

After a deadly decade for the press, the tone set by the Kremlin appeared to have changed. President Dmitry Medvedev said in July that justice in journalist murders is important “to honor the people who died while defending our legal system, defending regular people, and to educate an entire new generation of citizens.” International attention intensified, too, as the European Parliament, top U.S. officials, and the U.N. Human Rights Committee condemned ongoing and unpunished attacks on journalists.


Main Index

Regional Analysis:
Why a killing in Chechnya
is an international issue

Country Summaries
Other developments

But from the streets of Moscow to the restive regions of Chechnya and Dagestan, the brutal reality did not change. At least three journalists were killed for their work in 2009, bringing to 19 the number of work-related slayings in Russia this decade. There were a few tentative advances toward justice in 2009—arrests in one murder, pledges to re-examine other unsolved slayings—but those steps did little to alter the dangerous conditions confronting the nation’s critical press.

A few snapshots to illustrate: Two of the 2009 murder victims worked for a single paper, the independent Novaya Gazeta; five of its reporters and editors were slain this decade. Five journalists in towns across Russia were badly beaten in 2009 after covering sensitive subjects, including government corruption and official misconduct. In 11 cases during the year, journalists, their media outlets, or their families were threatened, harassed, forced to leave their assignments, or prosecuted on politicized charges. Russia is the fourth-deadliest country in the world for journalists, and the ninth worst in solving those crimes, according to CPJ research.

CPJ advocacy continued to focus on impunity. In September, a CPJ delegation traveled to Moscow to issue an investigative report, Anatomy of Injustice, which examined Russia’s failure to solve journalist murders. CPJ’s Kati Marton, Nina Ognianova, and Jean-Paul Marthoz met with officials from the presidential human rights council, the Foreign Ministry, and the Investigative Committee of the Prosecutor General’s Office—the lead agency in charge of solving the killings. Investigators agreed to meet with CPJ again in 2010 to discuss progress in the cases. CPJ traveled to Brussels as well, where it urged European Union officials to actively engage with Russia on impunity in crimes against the press.

The year got off to a devastating start when Anastasiya Baburova, a 25-year-old freelancer who reported on neo-fascist groups for Novaya Gazeta, and Stanislav Markelov, a prominent human rights lawyer, were shot and killed on a busy street just a mile from the Kremlin. Early on the afternoon of January 19, the two were walking together toward a metro stop after leaving a press conference at which Markelov had criticized the early release of a Russian army colonel convicted of murdering a Chechen girl. An assassin wearing a ski mask approached from behind, shooting Markelov and then Baburova with a pistol fitted with a silencer.

In the aftermath, Novaya Gazeta requested permission from the Interior Ministry for its staffers to carry guns for self-protection. “The state cannot defend us,” Editor-in-Chief Dmitry Muratov told the independent radio station Ekho Moskvy. The Interior Ministry declined the request, but police did make two arrests in the case in November. The suspects were identified in the press as members of a neo-fascist group. Nikita Tikhonov, 29, was accused of being the gunman, while Yevgeniya Khasis, 24, was said to be the lookout. The Investigative Committee and the Federal Security Service (FSB), which conducted a joint investigation, did not say whether the suspects had acted on their own or at the bidding of others. The case was pending in late year.  

On July 15, another assassination shook the independent Russian press. Grozny-based Natalya Estemirova, who contributed articles on human rights abuses in Chechnya to Novaya Gazeta and the independent Caucasus news Web site Kavkazsky Uzel, and who worked as a researcher for Human Rights Watch and the domestic rights group Memorial, was abducted by four men who forced her into a sedan and sped off. Her body, with multiple gunshot wounds, was found hours later near the village of Gazi-Yurt in neighboring Ingushetia. Witnesses saw the kidnappers but were too afraid to speak, press reports said.

Through her reporting and research, Estemirova had accumulated evidence linking human rights crimes to Chechen authorities, and particularly to armed units loyal to Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov. She was among the few remaining journalists based in Chechnya to regularly report on human rights issues. The chilling impact of Estemirova’s murder was immediate. Novaya Gazeta announced it would suspend reporting trips to Chechnya because it could not guarantee the safety of its journalists. The Grozny branch of Memorial, which Estemirova headed, suspended activities for nearly six months before resuming work in late December. No arrests were made or progress reported in the investigation.

On August 11, a Dagestani journalist known for his critical commentary was found shot in his car on a street in the capital, Makhachkala. The victim, Abdulmalik Akhmedilov, was deputy editor of the Makhachkala-based daily Hakikat and a chief editor of the political monthly Sogratl, both of which served Dagestan’s Avar ethnic group. In his Hakikat columns, Akhmedilov had sharply criticized federal and local officials for suppressing religious and political dissent under the guise of an “anti-extremism” campaign, a colleague told CPJ. Neighbors had seen a Lada sedan with tinted windows and no license plates parked in Akhmedilov’s neighborhood at least two days before the killing, the colleague said. No arrests or progress had been reported by late year.

CPJ was investigating two other deaths to determine whether they were work-related. Shafig Amrakhov, editor of the regional news agency RIA 51, died in a Murmansk hospital on January 5, six days after suffering head wounds from a gun firing rubber bullets. Amrakhov, who was conscious immediately after the attack, told relatives that an unknown man was waiting for him by the elevator of his Murmansk apartment, fired several times, and ran out. The case was unsolved in late year. Vyacheslav Yaroshenko, editor-in-chief of the Rostov-on-Don newspaper Korruptsiya i Prestupnost, died June 29 from injuries sustained in an attack two months earlier, according to press reports. The editor was found unconscious in the entrance of his apartment building on the morning of April 30. Korruptsiya i Prestupnost regularly published articles on alleged Rostov government corruption. That case was also unsolved in late year.

In December, a court in the southern republic of Ingushetia convicted a police officer of negligent homicide in the 2008 killing of online publisher Magomed Yevloyev. The victim’s family called the verdict a miscarriage of justice and asserted that the officer, who was sentenced to two years in a low-security prison, had purposely shot Yevloyev while the journalist was in custody.

Among the regional journalists beaten during the year, one case stood out for police indifference and another for its pure brutality. Yuri Grachev, editor-in-chief of the pro-opposition weekly Solnechnogorsky Forum, was attacked and left unconscious and bleeding in the entrance of his apartment building in the town of Solnechnogorsk on February 3. Moscow Region police spokesman Yevgeny Gildeyev told the business daily Kommersant that the 72-year-old journalist “might have slipped and fallen.” The paper had been covering a sensitive municipal election campaign at the time of the attack.

In the southern city of Saratov, two assailants attacked Vadim Rogozhin, then managing director of the independent media holding company Vzglyad, as he emerged from an elevator in his apartment building on March 5. The attackers struck him repeatedly on the head with heavy objects, leaving him with a fractured skull and multiple lacerations that required three months of hospitalization. Rogozhin had at one time covered regional government corruption for the newspaper Saratovsky Vzglyad. In August, police identified a local businessman as a suspect in the Rogozhin attack and several others. In September, Rogozhin resigned from the managing director’s position to start an online newspaper.

CPJ documented 11 cases of harassment, intimidation, and politicized prosecution during the year. The episodes included threats—as in the case of Aleksei Venediktov, prominent editor-in-chief of the independent radio station Ekho Moskvy, who found an ax stuck in a log by his door on February 5. Some involved legal harassment—as in the case of the Makhachkala-based independent weekly Chernovik, sued in June by Russia’s state media regulator on “extremism” charges after the paper quoted a Dagestani rebel leader. And some involved obstruction—as in the case of the independent broadcaster REN-TV, whose three-member crew was threatened and forced to abandon an assignment on corruption in the southern republic of Ingushetia in October.

In September, after CPJ’s advocacy, authorities in Abakan, capital of Khakassia in southern Siberia, dropped defamation charges against online editor Mikhail Afanasyev. The editor had questioned the state’s response to an explosion in August at Russia’s biggest power plant. Afanasyev had faced up to three years in prison.

Advocacy by CPJ also led to some notable changes in the political and law enforcement climate. During a visit to Moscow in July, U.S. President Barack Obama addressed the issue of impunity in an interview with Novaya Gazeta. “Americans and Russians,” he said, “have a common interest in the development of the rule of law, the strengthening of democracy, and the protection of human rights.” Shortly after Obama’s summit with Medvedev, Russian authorities agreed to reopen the dormant probe into the 2004 murder of Forbes Russia Editor Paul Klebnikov, an American, and work in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Justice.

In one of the most disappointing investigations, the unsolved 2006 murder of Novaya Gazeta correspondent Anna Politkovskaya, the Supreme Court issued two rulings that offered some new hope. The court overturned the February acquittals of three defendants and ordered prosecutors to reinvestigate the murder case. The defendants—Sergei Khadzhikurbanov, a former police officer, and brothers Ibragim and Dzhabrail Makhmudov—had been acquitted of secondary roles in the killing. They could be prosecuted again as part of the new probe. Investigative Committee officials told CPJ that they were also seeking the suspected gunman, Rustam Makhmudov, a third brother, as part of the new investigation. Rustam Makhmudov was believed to have fled abroad.

On September 17, two days after the release of Anatomy of Injustice, the European Parliament adopted a resolution condemning the murders of journalists and human rights advocates in Russia, and called on Moscow to “swiftly, thoroughly, effectively, and promptly investigate those murders and bring those responsible for and also those involved in these brutal acts to justice.” Parliament also convened a hearing on the issue and awarded its 2009 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought to Estemirova’s organization, Memorial.

Speaking at a reception for journalists and civil society activists in Moscow in October, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton highlighted impunity in journalist murders, quoted CPJ’s research, and emphasized the importance of transparency in government, the rule of law, and public trust in state institutions. “When violence like this goes unpunished in any society,” Clinton said, “it’s undermining the rule of law, chills public discourse, which is, after all, the lifeblood of an open society, and diminishes the public’s confidence and trust in their own government.”

The same month, the U.N. Human Rights Committee condemned Russia’s failure to protect journalists and human rights defenders from violent retaliation for their work. The committee evaluates compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and issues non-binding prescriptions. In a set of recommendations to the Russian government, published on October 30, the committee said it was “concerned at the alarming incidence of threats, violent assaults, and murders of journalists and human rights defenders in the Russian Federation, which had created a climate of fear and a chilling effect on the media, and regretted the lack of effective measures taken to protect the right to life and security of those persons.” The committee gave Moscow one year to update it on what it was doing to remedy the record.