Journalists investigating deaths of Russian soldiers are threatened and attacked

Journalists investigating the deaths of Russian soldiers that news reports claimed were killed during Russia’s alleged involvement in Ukraine’s conflict have been targeted in a series of attacks since late August, according to a press freedom group. Russia has denied that its soldiers were involved in the conflict, but journalists who spoke to the Committee to Protect Journalists said the attacks, mostly by unknown assailants, began after they tried to investigate the mysterious deaths of Russian soldiers.

According to Glasnost Defense Foundation (GDF), the Moscow-based press freedom group, attacks on local and international journalists covering the story have spiked. In at least five cases in August, GDF documented threats, arbitrary detentions, denial of access to public information, use of violence, and physical assaults. Many attacks took place in Pskov region, home to Russia’s famous 76th Guards Air Assault Division (paratroopers).

In the most recent case, journalists from BBC’s Moscow bureau were physically assaulted, and had equipment damaged, and files tampered with in the southern Russian city of Astrakhan on Thursday, the broadcaster said in a statement. The crew, including reporter Steve Rosenberg, were reporting on the funeral of a Russian soldier who, local media reported, had been killed in eastern Ukraine under unclear circumstances. After finishing their assignment the crew were followed by three men who beat the cameraman, and smashed and stole the camera, the BBC said.

In a statement the BBC, which has lodged a formal complaint with Russian authorities, said: “The team was then taken to a police station for four hours of questioning after which they discovered that recording equipment — which was in their vehicle, at the police station — had been electronically wiped.” The BBC has asked Russian authorities to investigate the attack, which it said was “clearly part of a coordinated attempt to stop accredited news journalists reporting a legitimate news story.” News reports said that regional police opened an inquiry into the incident, but classified it as robbery – not an obstruction to journalism.

The attacks started after the independent newspaper Pskovskaya Guberniya, published a series of reports claiming members of 76th Division had been deployed secretly to eastern Ukraine, and had been actively involved in the conflict with pro-Russia separatists. Russia denies the claims. On August 29, the newspaper’s publisher, Lev Shlosberg, who is also a politician with the opposition party Yabloko, was the victim of a vicious attack that he said was in retaliation for his paper’s investigation into the deaths of Russian paratroopers in Ukraine. In a series of reports, the newspaper alleged that up to 100 soldiers from Pskov were killed in eastern Ukraine in August. It cited paratroopers from 76th Division who had asked the paper not to name them. Authorities denied the allegations.

Speaking to CPJ from his hospital bed, where he was recovering from head injuries, Shlosberg said that a few days after the reports were published, unidentified assailants approached him from behind, knocked him to the ground with a blow to his head, and pummeled him. He lost consciousness. News reports said Shlosberg was attacked on his way to a late-night meeting with his reporter, Aleksei Semyonov, whom he was supposed to give sensitive information about his findings on the deaths.

Semyonov found Shlosberg after the assault, and published his account of the events, including the paper’s investigation into Russian soldiers’ deaths. According to Semyonov’s account, before the assault Shlosberg had attended the funeral in Pskov of Leonid Kichatkin, a paratrooper believed to be killed in eastern Ukraine. At the funeral several men in uniform had scuffled with the publisher, according to Semyonov.

Although Shlosberg did not want to comment on the inquiry authorities started into his attack, or speculate about dangers his paper may face over its reporting, he told CPJ there was “no doubt that the motive of the attack was his reporting [on the paratroopers’ illegal deployment to Ukraine] and not his work in the regional parliament.”

Despite the attack, Pskovskaya Guberniya has continued to report on the mysterious deaths of Russian soldiers. Other news outlets have written similar reports, naming Russian soldiers and army officers wounded or killed during what Moscow described as “military exercises” near the Ukraine border. On Tuesday, Shlosberg filed a formal request asking the office of the Russian general prosecutor to investigate the deaths of 12 soldiers who served in Pskov region, the Moscow-based independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported.

After he filed the request, the state-owned news channel Vesti released a lengthy report on Shlosberg’s case. But instead of following up on his inquiry, the broadcaster portrayed him as a traitor and recipient of foreign grants, including from the U.S. government-funded National Endowment for Democracy. And, as in the case of the BBC crew, regional police told Vesti that because Shlosberg lost his cell phone during the attack, it is being investigated as a robbery, not obstruction to journalism.

Requests from the leadership of Shlosberg’s party to have the case classified under the Russian criminal code as “obstruction to journalism” and “assault against a public official” have not been granted, news reports said.

The attacks against the BBC crew and Shlosberg were not the first. In just two days, August 26 and 27, seven journalists from independent news outlets who visited the region to cover the same story were targeted with attacks, threats, and other forms of obstruction to their work, they told CPJ. Among them were Nina Petlyanova from the Moscow-based newspaper Novaya Gazeta; Irina Borukovich of the St. Petersburg-based newspaper Fontanka; Sergey Kovalchenko and Sergey Gorin of the St. Petersburg-based news website Telegraf; Vladimir Romensky with the online broadcaster Dozhd; Ilya Vasyunin of the Moscow-based newspaper Russkaya Planeta; and Denis Pinchuk of Reuters.

“In August alone our foundation received alarming news [on obstruction to journalism] from Rostov, Kaluga, Ryazan, Pskov, and other regions,” Aleksei Simonov, GDF’s chairman, told CPJ. “I believe that these cases of obstruction to reporters’ work stem from journalistic investigations into the classified by top authorities information on the level of Russia’s involvement into the conflict in Ukraine.” Simonov said that, in his opinion, Russia’s Investigative Committee — a federal agency tasked with investigating serious crimes — should open an investigation under article 144 of the Criminal Code, obstruction to journalists’ professional activities.

Petlyanova told CPJ that while attending the funeral of paratrooper Aleksei Karpenko, two men threatened her and Borukovich. The men, who Petlyanova said were either friends of relatives of Karpenko, pushed the two journalists in Borukovich’s car, then threatened them, urged them to stop investigating soldiers’ deaths, and told them to leave the region immediately. The attackers forced the journalists to show their passports, which they photographed. They also deleted pictures from Petlyanova’s camera.

The journalist told CPJ she believed her assailants were scared and looked nervous at the thought of Karpenko’s funeral being leaked to the media. The official cause of death for the soldier was listed as stroke, a cause listed on at least two other death certificates, relatives of dead soldiers told Petlyanova. Other journalists who spoke to CPJ after investigating the deaths also said that the soldiers’ relatives appeared to be scared or under pressure, and that they had negative feelings towards reporters.

Vasyunin and Romensky told CPJ they were threatened on August 26 when they met relatives of a deceased soldier in Pskov. Two muscular men approached them near the family’s house, and insisted the journalists leave. When the reporters later accompanied Petlyanova and Borukovich to the Novoye cemetery in Kresty district of Pskov, two unidentified men tried to break their car’s windows, and slit its tires, before demanding that they leave. Journalists filmed the attack and shared the video with news outlets.

During that attack, Petlyanova said, she called the police but authorities started investigating only after Novaya Gazeta‘s chief editor Dmitry Muratov — acting on her request — personally appealed to Russia’s interior minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev.

The journalists who spoke to CPJ said cemeteries in the region appear to be guarded by unknown men, who obstruct journalists’ access to the grave sites or the families of killed soldiers.

On August 28, members of Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, under the president of Russia, officially asked the committee’s leadership to order an inquiry into the attacks, and take measures to bring those responsible to justice. “We firmly believe that inevitability of punishment is the primary requirement in the fight against crime,” said the letter, signed by Mikhail Fedotov, chairman of the council.

In addition to the appeal, the human rights council and several members of Russia’s parliament proposed to amend Russian media law to ensure greater security for journalists in conflict zones, local press reported. The officials suggested that media law should require news outlets to provide security training and offer insurance to journalists in conflict areas and hot spots.

Boris Reznik, a member of the Russian parliament and supporter of the bill, told CPJ: “We understand that these amendments are just a drop in the ocean, but we have to do something to ensure any protection for Russian journalists. [The] situation is so bad nowadays that media workers with state-owned news outlets or their families do not receive any help or insurance compensation if they get wounded or even killed while carrying [out] their professional activities in conflict zones.”

After the killing of at least five Russian journalists or media workers in Ukraine, according to CPJ research, the bill might get official support and be adopted.

However, this is hardly a solution. If Russian authorities want to “ensure protection for Russian journalists”–as Reznik put it–they should not stop their efforts at legal amendments. They must thoroughly investigate and bring to justice those responsible for the attacks against journalists who investigate crimes committed by Russian officials — from human rights abuses and corruption, to allegations of the secret deployment of Russian soldiers to Ukraine. As practice elsewhere shows, attacks on the press have a tendency to diminish when authorities act swiftly to reduce the level of impunity in attacks against reporters.

[Translated from Russian by Muzaffar Suleymanov, CPJ Europe and Central Asia Research Associate]