The Committee to Protect Journalists prepared this report to highlight the alarming and ongoing problem of deadly violence against critical journalists in Russia and the government’s consistent inability to bring justice in these cases. CPJ’s analysis points to systemic failures that if left unaddressed will further erode free expression and the rule of law in Russia. Vital national and international interests are at stake.
Anatomy of Injustice: The Unsolved Killings of Journalists in Russia
A record of impunity
Seventeen journalists have been killed in retaliation for their work since 2000. The victims represent the breadth of Russian journalism: editors, reporters, photographers, columnists, and a publisher. Some had earned international reputations; others were local reporters probing issues important to their communities. They shared one thing: All were engaged in critical reporting that threatened powerful interests in government, business, law enforcement, or criminal groups.
In only one case have the killers been convicted. CPJ research shows Russia to be the world’s third deadliest country for the press and the ninth worst in solving journalist murders. Russia has been a consistently dangerous place throughout the last two decades; CPJ is examining the period 2000-09 because it reflects the record of the current leadership.
This record of impunity in journalism-related killings stands in sharp contrast to Russia’s stated record in solving murders among the general population. Aleksandr Bastrykin, who as head of the Investigative Committee at the Prosecutor General’s Office is one of the country’s top law enforcement officials, has said that the vast majority of murders have been solved in recent years.
Even as this report went to press, two more journalists were slain: Reporter and activist Natalya Estemirova was kidnapped and killed in Chechnya, while Vyacheslav Yaroshenko, editor of the Rostov-on-Don newspaper Korruptsiya i Prestupnost, died after an assault. CPJ is now investigating the circumstances of those killings as well.
Shortcomings at all levels
The failure to achieve justice reflects shortcomings at every level: political, investigative, prosecutorial, and judicial.
The Kremlin has set the political tone by marginalizing critical journalists, effectively barring them from state-controlled national television, and obstructing their work through politicized regulations and bureaucratic harassment. Probing journalists—often shunted to media with limited audiences—are isolated, undervalued, and vulnerable to attack.
CPJ’s analysis shows that the murder investigations have been consistently opaque, often marred by conflicts of interest, and frequently subject to undue influence from external political forces. Time and again, CPJ found, investigators failed to follow up on journalism-related leads, examine work material, or question professional contacts. Important evidence has been concealed at times without clear explanation.
In some instances, prosecutors have brought ill-prepared cases to trial, and in at least one case they brought bogus charges against an innocent man. Judicial officials have made questionable or unexplained decisions, from closing courtrooms to leaving jurors exposed to intimidation. At all levels, authorities have failed to communicate with victims’ families about even the most basic case developments. These secretive practices have deterred accountability, encouraged the manipulation of the justice system, and undermined public trust.
Compelling reasons to change
This situation has led to self-censorship in the Russian press, leaving issues of vital importance underreported or entirely uncovered. In-depth, critical journalism is in danger of becoming extinct in one of the world’s most influential countries. If Russia is to pursue a democratic future it cannot allow the levers of power to be unexamined by independent journalists.
At stake in these 17 cases is Russia’s commitment to the rule of law for all citizens—including even the harshest Kremlin critics. The constitution of the Russian Federation guarantees the right to life and the freedom to exchange ideas; it obligates the government to protect those rights.
President Dmitry Medvedev said he is committed to rooting out corruption, standing up for the rule of law, and getting to the bottom of unsolved journalist murders. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has also said attacks on journalists need to be addressed. Such pledges are important, but they are only the first step in an arduous process that will require strong, ongoing political will.
This is not solely a domestic issue. The international community has a deep and intrinsic interest in upholding the basic human rights to life and free expression. When a powerful nation, an influential member of numerous international organizations, does not protect basic human rights, it erodes those rights for everyone.
The road to justice
Fundamental steps can address this record of impunity. The changes need to start with the political tone set by the Kremlin. President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin should condemn all attacks on the press in clear, public, and unequivocal terms. They should halt efforts to marginalize or criminalize critical journalism. And they should hold top law enforcement officials accountable for solving murders and violent crimes against journalists.
Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika and Investigative Committee Chairman Bastrykin should order a thorough re-examination of all 17 of these cases. Unchecked leads should be pursued, wanted suspects should be tracked down, professional motives should be thoroughly examined. Where there are conflicts of interest, cases should be reassigned. Investigators and prosecutors should communicate clearly and regularly with victims’ families. Given Russia’s centralized law enforcement system, Chaika and Bastrykin have the ability and the obligation to hold local subordinates accountable for their actions.
The international community must hold Russian leaders accountable for their record on this issue. World leaders have the ability to scrutinize the record, use political persuasion to effect change, and take substantive action in international legal forums.
All of this will be needed—and all of this is possible—to change this record of injustice.