Secrecy, indifference, conflicts mar investigations into journalist deaths. Moscow has a responsibility to uphold the rule of law. Its international partners have an obligation, too.
Anatomy of Injustice: The Unsolved Killings of Journalists in Russia
In his inaugural address on May 7, 2008, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev pledged to “do everything so that the safety of citizens would not only be guaranteed by the law but effectively secured by the state.” Strengthening the rule of law, he said, would be a priority of his presidency. On a number of occasions since, the president has voiced his commitment to investigating attacks against one particularly vulnerable segment of Russian society: its journalists. Medvedev’s commitment echoed a pledge by his predecessor, Vladimir Putin, now prime minister, who told reporters in the Kremlin’s Round Hall in February 2007 that “the issue of journalist persecution is one of the most pressing.” He added, “We will do everything to protect the press corps.”
Commitments made at the highest levels of government are significant, particularly given Russia’s centralized law enforcement system. But these promises have yet to be fulfilled.
The record is unambiguous: Since 2000, 17 journalists have been killed in Russia in retaliation for their work. In only one case have the killers been convicted and, even there, the masterminds remain at large. (Three other journalists were killed by crossfire during conflict situations this decade.) Russia is among the deadliest countries in the world for journalists, and it is also among the worst in solving crimes against the press, according to CPJ research.
Conditions have been consistently dangerous for the news media throughout the post-Soviet era: CPJ research shows Russia has been the world’s third deadliest nation for journalists not only in this decade, but since the birth of the Russian Federation. But CPJ data also show that targeted murders of reporters have climbed this decade, even as the Kremlin has centralized power and limited the influence of independent journalists. This report focuses on the period 2000-09 because it reflects the record of the current administration.
The pattern of impunity in journalist killings contrasts sharply with Russian law enforcement’s stated record in solving murders among the general population. Law enforcement agencies are solving the vast majority of murders in recent years, as many as four out of five, Aleksandr Bastrykin, one of the nation’s top justice officials, said in a May 2009 interview with the newspaper Novaya Gazeta.
CPJ’s investigation, based on interviews with dozens of sources and its review of hundreds of pages of documents and news accounts, reveals systemic shortcomings that have thwarted justice in journalist killings.
The 17 victims worked in big cities and small towns across Russia: in the country’s great capital, Moscow; in the industrial cities of Togliatti, Taganrog, and Tula; in tiny Reftinsky in the Urals; in warm Azov on the Don River; in the historic city of St. Petersburg; and in the volatile North Caucasus republics of Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Dagestan. They were veterans who had earned international acclaim, and they were young reporters trying to cover injustice in local communities. The victims included reporters and editors, a publisher and an analyst, a cameraman and a photographer. Four of the 17 worked for a single newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, an intrepid Moscow publication that continues to produce critical coverage despite its terrible losses.
For all their differences, the victims shared one thing: They covered sensitive subjects in probing ways that threatened the powerful, from government officials to businesspeople, military to militants, law enforcement officers to criminal gang members. Here, in the order in which they appear in this report, are the 17 women and men who lost their lives in the pursuit of their work:
Paul Klebnikov, the editor of Forbes Russia who covered the connections between business, politics, and organized crime. A drive-by gunman silenced him in the street outside his Moscow office on July 9, 2004.
Anna Politkovskaya, who produced devastating reports on human rights abuses in the North Caucasus for Novaya Gazeta. An assassin gunned her down in her Moscow apartment building on October 7, 2006.
Eduard Markevich, the founder of a tiny weekly, Novy Reft, who questioned whether public employees in Reftinsky were using their offices for personal gain. An assailant shot him in the back on September 19, 2001.
Pavel Makeev, a cameraman for Puls television, who tried to film illegal drag racing outside his town of Azov. Evidence shows a driver struck him May 20, 2005, and dragged him 50 feet, never applying the brakes. His equipment and video were taken.
Yuri Shchekochikhin, deputy editor of Novaya Gazeta, who for two years meticulously uncovered a complex international corruption scheme. He was felled by a mysterious illness and died July 3, 2003. His medical records were classified a state secret.
Ivan Safronov, military correspondent for the business daily Kommersant, whose exclusive reports described a missile failure and questionable arms sales. He fell more than four stories from a window in his Moscow apartment building on March 2, 2007.
Maksim Maksimov, a reporter with the St. Petersburg weekly Gorod, who was investigating reports of corruption in the local Interior Ministry branch. He disappeared after going to meet a source on June 29, 2004, and has since been declared dead.
Magomed Yevloyev, publisher of the independent news Web site Ingushetiya, who exposed official corruption and human rights crimes in the restive southern republic. He was shot and killed in state custody on August 31, 2008.
Natalya Skryl, a business reporter for Nashe Vremya, who was covering the struggle for control of a steel-pipe plant in her hometown of Taganrog. An assailant bludgeoned her to death on a street near her home on March 8, 2002.
Vagif Kochetkov, a political reporter for Molodoi Kommunar, who had written critically about business practices and organized crime in Tula. An attacker struck him on the head with a blunt object near his home on December 27, 2005. He died 12 days later.
Valery Ivanov and Aleksei Sidorov, consecutive editors of the independent newspaper Tolyattinskoye Obozreniye, who exposed organized crime and government corruption in the car-manufacturing city of Togliatti. Assailants shot Ivanov repeatedly at point-blank range on April 29, 2002, and, 18 months later, on October 9, 2003, stabbed Sidorov again and again with an ice pick. Both were killed right outside their homes.
Vladimir Yatsina, Magomedzagid Varisov, and Telman Alishayev, who were working in the volatile North Caucasus region. Yatsina, a photographer, had traveled to Chechnya on a freelance assignment when members of a criminal gang kidnapped him in July 1999 and then shot him the following February. Varisov, a political analyst with Dagestan’s largest weekly, Novoye Delo, had criticized people across the political spectrum before gunmen shot him on June 28, 2005. Alishayev, a reporter and host for the Islamic TV-Chirkei in Dagestan, had reported on sensitive religious issues before an assailant gunned him down on September 2, 2008.
Anastasiya Baburova, a freelancer for Novaya Gazeta, who covered the activities of neo-fascist groups. A gunman shot her and prominent human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov in Moscow as they emerged from a January 19, 2009, press conference detailing the early prison release of a Russian colonel convicted of murdering a Chechen girl.
And Igor Domnikov, Novaya Gazeta reporter and special-projects editor, who had criticized the economic policies of regional administrators in Lipetsk. An assailant struck him with a hammer outside his Moscow apartment on May 12, 2000, leading to his death two months later.
The failure to achieve justice in these cases can be traced to every stage of the process: political, investigative, prosecutorial, and judicial.
The political climate is set by the Kremlin, where leaders have sought to obstruct and marginalize critical journalists. Probing journalists are effectively banned from influential national television channels and are pushed instead to limited-audience print and Internet publications. In such a climate, these reporters find themselves isolated, unprotected, and undervalued; their enemies, by turn, are emboldened to use violence, the ultimate form of censorship.
An opaque law-enforcement bureaucracy has made pivotal decisions without offering public explanation or even informing victims’ families and legal representatives. When a Moscow prosecutor’s office closed the criminal investigation into Ivan Safronov’s mysterious death, it did not bother to notify the journalist’s family. Dagestani investigators say they killed one suspect in the Telman Alishayev slaying and identified another, but the victim’s family says it has never heard anything directly from authorities.
Such a closed process deters accountability. In some cases, important evidence has been shielded from the public and the families. When Yuri Shchekochikhin’s family tried to learn more about his death, officials at the government-run clinic where the journalist was treated sealed the medical records. In other cases, agencies hand off responsibility for stalled investigations from one to another. CPJ’s inquiries in the Natalya Skryl case, for example, were passed among three offices, none of which responded substantively as of July.
Significant investigative gaps have marred several cases. Investigators did not question an alleged conspirator in Vladimir Yatsina’s abduction and killing even though the man was known to be living and attending school in Moscow. In the Eduard Markevich case, authorities detained a suspect almost immediately but allowed him to walk away while the case was shuffled between prosecutors. Vagif Kochetkov’s slaying was written off as a robbery by investigators who were uninterested in examining professional motives.
When prosecutors have gone to court, cases have been weak and, in one case, bogus. Prosecutors in the Anna Politkovskaya murder trial presented flawed and incomplete evidence to a skeptical jury, who acquitted three defendants. In the Aleksei Sidorov slaying, authorities coerced a confession and falsified evidence against an innocent man; the defendant was acquitted.
Questionable and unexplained judicial decisions plagued the Paul Klebnikov case. The presiding judge took no measures to protect jurors, who were subjected to intimidation by the defendants. Later, a court moved the retrial of the two suspects off the docket without disclosing the reasons or the person who made the decision.
Inherent conflicts of interest have gone unaddressed, with predictable results. Although Magomed Yevloyev was shot in the custody of Ingushetia Interior Ministry officers, the investigation was left in the hands of local authorities. They swiftly sided with the shooter—nephew of Ingushetia’s then-interior minister—and declared Yevloyev’s death accidental. In the slaying of Maksim Maksimov, St. Petersburg authorities made no evident effort to follow up on allegations that local police may have been involved.
In some cases, authorities at various levels have appeared susceptible to external pressure. Pavel Makeev’s death while filming drag racers in Azov was declared a traffic accident by the same police who had been accused of permitting the illegal activity. In Togliatti, a city plagued by corruption, investigators ignored journalism-related motives in the slaying of the muckraking Valery Ivanov.
Some relatives, left vulnerable to intimidation, have abandoned what they have come to see as a hopeless fight for justice. After her husband’s murder, Tatyana Markevich was subjected to threats that forced her to leave town. Skryl’s mother, Nellya, told CPJ she had been warned “not to interfere” in the case of her murdered daughter if she wished no harm to come to her “living” relatives.
Despite the evident despair, there are many reasons for hope. For both Russia and the international community, there are compelling reasons to correct this record of impunity.
For Russia’s leaders, it is a matter of upholding national security and the rule of law. President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin have made commitments to protect their country’s stability, fight corruption, and ensure the safety of all of their citizens. When 17 journalists are killed for asking tough questions and not a single case is fully solved, the government is not meeting its duty to uphold the law.
Some Russian officials have suggested the country’s record of impunity is an internal matter and that the world should not meddle. But Russia’s partners in Europe and throughout the world have a deep and intrinsic interest. Deadly violence leads to pervasive self-censorship among journalists, leaving issues of international importance underreported or entirely uncovered. A nation that closes its society raises questions about its reliability as an international partner.
Russia is an influential player in numerous international organizations, but membership comes with obligations to respect internationally recognized human rights. When Russia does not honor those rights at home, it erodes those rights for all. This is particularly true when it comes to Russia’s “near abroad.” Moscow remains a political and moral force for many of the former Soviet states, which emulate its attitudes and policies on human rights and press freedom.
The international community must remind Russia’s leaders of its responsibilities and seek results at every opportunity.
The challenge is daunting, but leaders in Moscow can reverse the country’s record of impunity. As this report shows, the failures in the investigation and prosecution of these 17 journalist deaths stem from authorities’ reluctance—not their inability—to pursue cases to a successful end. Russia has considerable security, scientific, economic, and human resources.
In the cases where conflicts of interest have hampered probes, new and independent investigators should be assigned and, where appropriate, cases should be transferred out of current jurisdictions entirely. Rather than maintain walls of secrecy, authorities should choose transparency and accountability to restore citizens’ trust in state institutions. Officials should communicate regularly with relatives of the victims and allow them access to case files. Court proceedings should be open to the public.
Cases that are technically open but dormant in practical terms must be revived: Unchecked leads should be pursued, missing suspects sought, witnesses and potential suspects tracked down and questioned. Where professional motives were dismissed without sufficient investigation, authorities should refocus their efforts on the victim’s journalism.
In Russia’s centralized law enforcement system, local prosecutors and investigators ultimately report to Moscow. This system demands that federal authorities exert greater oversight of the activities of their local subordinates. The Prosecutor General’s Office headed by Yuri Chaika and the Investigative Committee headed by Aleksandr Bastrykin share practical responsibility for these 17 cases.
President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin, as Russia’s top leaders, share a moral responsibility. They can start by condemning—publicly and unequivocally—all acts of violence against journalists, by allowing critical reporters to repopulate Russia’s public space, and by demanding from law enforcement officials concrete results in solving crimes against the press. Doing so would promote a stable, just society for all Russians and demonstrate Moscow’s commitment to being an international leader.