Enterprising young reporters tackling sensitive local topics are often isolated and vulnerable to reprisals from powerful forces.
Anatomy of Injustice: The Unsolved Killings of Journalists in Russia
In Russia’s regions, where crime and corruption go largely unchecked by authorities and unreported by state-controlled media, independent journalists can have an outsize voice. A start-up newspaper or a rookie journalist can expose big stories.
But with a thin support network—professional advocacy groups and independent lawyers are hard-working but strained—these journalists are isolated and vulnerable to reprisal. Law enforcement officials are too often beholden to the interests of local politicians, businessmen, and criminals. The killings of two enterprising young journalists illustrate the danger.
Eduard Markevich put together the first edition of Novy Reft in July 1997. At 25, he was a crusading young man out to expose the lawlessness that had frustrated residents of Reftinsky, a town of 19,000 in central Russia, where the main sources of employment were an industrial-size chicken farm and a hydroelectric plant. Markevich and his wife, Tatyana, sold some furniture they got as a wedding gift to buy a computer, he taught himself Photoshop and PageMaker, and they published the weekly, circulation 4,000, from their apartment.
Pavel Makeev was 19 in 2003 when he and his newly remarried mother moved from northern Russia to Azov, a southwestern city of 90,000 on the banks of the Don River. He found work as a cameraman at the local television station, Puls, where he learned to shoot and edit footage for news programs. Among colleagues, the affable young journalist was best known initially for the tasty sandwiches he would make for late-working staff.
Their lives were brutally cut short, an outrage compounded by an evident lack of effort in solving the crimes.
By winter 1998, Eduard Markevich and an independent-minded lawyer, Yuri Kozhevnikov, started investigating allegations that a government official was renting state vocational school space for personal gain. In a startling two-week period, two masked men broke into Markevich’s apartment and beat him with metal bars in front of his wife, while an arsonist set fire to Kozhevnikov’s apartment. An injured Markevich went ahead and published the article in March, although police made no apparent headway in apprehending suspects in the two attacks.
Markevich was at odds with local authorities again in 2000 when he published a story questioning the propriety of a government contract that gave a former deputy prosecutor exclusive right to represent the Reftinsky administration in court. The journalist was detained on a defamation charge for 10 days before a regional prosecutor intervened and ruled the jailing unlawful.
By 2001, Markevich had gotten a new tip that excited him but prompted him to be unusually secretive—so much so that even his wife said she did not know the topic. Markevich hinted to a friend that the story would be “a real bombshell … a dangerous case,” Novy Reft later reported. In September 2001, Markevich started getting threatening phone calls and staying inside more often, his wife recalled in an interview with CPJ. An unfamiliar white Zhiguli 10 sedan seemed to be parked frequently near the couple’s apartment building.
At 9 p.m. on September 19, 2001, as Markevich was walking through a courtyard toward his building, a man shot the journalist in the back with a sawed-off shotgun and fled in a white Zhiguli 10, according to witnesses cited by Novy Reft and Sergei Plotnikov, an analyst for the Moscow-based press freedom group, Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations. As homicide investigators were examining the crime scene, traffic officers about 25 miles (40 kilometers) outside Reftinsky stopped a car that fit the description from the shooting. They found a large sum of money and detained the driver, according to Plotnikov, who said local prosecutors were “practically euphoric” that they had solved the killing.
Within days, though, the case was transferred without explanation to the Sverdlovsk regional prosecutor’s office and the investigation appeared to grind to a halt. After 10 days in detention, the suspect was released due to “insufficient evidence,” according to press reports quoting the Sverdlovsk prosecutor’s office. Over the next two years, the case was handed off from one lead investigator to another, four in all, only one of whom appeared to demonstrate any interest, according to Plotnikov.
With an eye toward exposing her husband’s killers, Tatyana Markevich continued to publish Novy Reft. The newspaper reported that Eduard Markevich might have been looking into alleged misuse of state property at the time of his death. He had asked a friend to photograph a state-owned building and another colleague to videotape a gathering of “VIP individuals” at the building, Novy Reft reported.
On October 4, 2002, Novy Reft published a follow-up article by the lawyer Kozhevnikov on the vocational school allegations that the newspaper had first reported in 1998. Five days after the article was published, as Tatyana was preparing to take the next issue to the printer, a dumbbell with a threatening note was thrown through her apartment window, she recalled. The next morning, she said, she found her apartment door splattered with varnish and saw burnt matches on the ground.
Local police barely examined the crime scene and refused to provide her with any protection, she said. Fearing for her safety and that of her 3-year-old son, Tatyana shut down Novy Reft on October 15, 2002, resettled in another town, and took up a new profession.
The Sverdlovsk prosecutor’s office would not answer questions from CPJ about its handling of the Markevich case, referring inquiries to the Sverdlovsk branch of the Investigative Committee, an agency created in 2007 to spearhead criminal inquiries. The Sverdlovsk Investigative Committee did not respond to written questions submitted by CPJ in May 2009.
Tatyana Markevich, who eventually received and reviewed the government’s investigative file, said she believes the transfer of the case in its early stages, when crucial evidence should have been collected and analyzed, consigned the investigation to failure. “To this day, I do not understand why they didn’t get the fingerprints from the car they seized after the murder,” she said. She said she suspects that “interference from above” led to the transfer of the case and the release of the one suspect.
One of the slain journalist’s friends, local reporter Vyacheslav Martyushov, noted the risks of investigating the intersection of business, politics, and crime in Russia. “There’s a reason why contract killings end up in the ‘unsolved’ category,” Martyushov said in an October 2002 interview with Novy Reft. “If you dig deep, roots will come to the surface that will lead you upward.”
Two years into his fledgling career, Pavel Makeev volunteered to work on a risky story about illegal drag racing said to be organized for the children of businessmen and officials known locally as “the golden youth.” Organizers would block traffic on a four-lane stretch of highway outside the city and set up high-stakes betting for the sizable crowds that would gather, according to Puls Editor-in-Chief Aleksei Sklyarov. There were unconfirmed allegations that traffic police had been bribed to look the other way.
At 11:30 p.m. on May 20, 2005, Makeev and a colleague arrived to shoot footage of the racing. An hour and a half later, the young cameraman was dead. Emergency workers received a call around 1 a.m. that a bloodied and severely bruised body had been spotted in a ditch by the highway, according to press reports.
Witnesses reported that a white Zhiguli 9 driven by a young man had struck Makeev at high speed and dragged him about 50 feet (15 meters), according to Sklyarov, whose station conducted its own investigation into the death. He also pointed to physical evidence: A pool of blood was found on the highway and streaks of blood led to the ditch; no skid marks were found on the pavement; fragments of a broken windshield were scattered on the ground; Makeev’s Nokia mobile phone and Sony video camera were gone. The terrified colleague who was with Makeev that night left his job at the television station soon after, the editor told CPJ.
Azov police initially classified the death as involuntary manslaughter due to a “driver violating traffic regulations,” according to local press reports. The case was transferred on May 30 to the regional prosecutor’s office, which declined to share information with Makeev’s family or colleagues, Sklyarov told CPJ. By August 17, the prosecutor’s press secretary, Yelena Velikova, announced that authorities had closed the investigation, citing the “absence of evidence of a crime.”
Prosecutors never identified the driver who had hit Makeev and did not explain how a car with a broken windshield could have passed undetected through police-monitored video checkpoints along the highway, according to local press reports.
Velikova did say at the time that prosecutors had identified a person who had taken Makeev’s video camera. No charges were lodged against that individual. In a July 2009 statement, the Rostov prosecutor’s office told CPJ it would reopen the case because of lingering questions.
Makeev’s colleagues and supporters are deeply skeptical of the police work. “It’s clear that the police presented Pavel’s death as a traffic accident without ever conducting a thorough investigation,” Sklyarov told CPJ. “They didn’t look carefully for evidence at the scene, and they didn’t bother interviewing the dozens of people who were there when it happened. That’s all they needed to do to figure out what had happened so that all of us—Pavel’s colleagues and family—would not have to be so tormented by this.”