2002 Awardee: Irina Petrushova

International Press Freedom Awards


Fearless journalism runs in Irina Petrushova’s family. A generation ago, her father, Albert Petrushov, a reporter for Pravda, wrote exposés that brought down the corrupt Communist Party boss of Kazakhstan, then a republic in the Soviet Union. Now Irina, 36, and the founder and editor-in-chief of the weekly Respublika, routinely challenges post-Soviet Kazakhstan’s autocratic president, Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Founded two years ago to cover business and economic issues, Petrushova’s paper has hammered Nazarbayev’s regime for cronyism and corruption. Respublika‘s exposés have ranged from financial scandals–favoritism in the awarding of highly lucrative oil rights–to petty nepotism–the official commandeering of a jet loaded with tourists so that Nazarbayev’s daughter could fly alone.

Then there were the persistent rumors about secret government accounts in Swiss banks, a story pursued by Respublika and others until April, when it was publicly revealed that Nazarbayev had quietly stashed US$1 billion of state oil revenues in a Swiss account. As that story grew into a national scandal, Petrushova suddenly found herself the target of an intense, sometimes grisly, campaign of intimidation. This last spring, a funeral wreath was anonymously delivered to Petrushova; a decapitated dog’s corpse was found hanging from a window grate at Respublika (A screwdriver plunged into the torso held the message, “There will be no next time.”); the dog’s severed head was left near her house with another threat; and Respublika‘s printer announced he was quitting after finding a human skull on his doorstep.

“It’s just like it was in the time of the Soviet Union,” laments Petrushova.

Three days after the dog incident, Respublika‘s office was firebombed and burned to the ground. Petrushova and her staff moved and kept publishing. She hired a bodyguard for her two young sons. But harassment continued; several journalists have been beaten in Kazakhstan this year, papers have been forced out of business, and Petrushova faced relentless bureaucratic pressures from the government, including a suspended jail sentence handed down in July for her conviction on alleged business violations. In September, Petrushova reluctantly relocated to Moscow but continues to edit her Almaty-based newspaper long-distance.

In 1992, Petrushova’s father was severely injured in a car accident, and a manuscript of his investigative work was stolen while he was unconscious. Neither her father’s fate nor the current intimidations aimed at her have deterred Petrushova.

“If we don’t publish, who will?” she says. “We are the only ones left now. The people have no other source of [independent] information.”