Anatomy of Injustice: The Unsolved Killings of Journalists in Russia
It is a sad irony: While the world celebrates the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Russia itself is relapsing to some of its Soviet ways. In fact, for journalists, Russia is a more dangerous place now than it was during the Cold War.
Only Iraq and Algeria outrank Russia on the list of most life-threatening countries for the press. Seventeen journalists have been murdered in Russia since 2000. In only one case have the killers been punished. This is a sorry record for a great and powerful nation that embarked on democratization after more than 70 years of brutal repression.
That is why the Committee to Protect Journalists is releasing an unprecedented report that calls on the international community to help reverse this slide toward lawlessness. Our mission is to protect journalists, and we are less and less able to do so in Russia. Though we continue to appeal to Russian authorities to bring to justice those who murdered our colleagues, we can no longer leave it at that. This report is more than an expression of our outrage. We propose concrete guidelines and present hard facts for restarting investigations into these unsolved murders.
Let us be perfectly plain. Any state that turns a blind eye—or worse—toward the assassination of reporters cannot call itself a democracy. When journalists are threatened, democracy itself is threatened. Along with the rule of law, an independent judiciary, and an autonomous civil society, free media is one of the essential pillars of a healthy society. Remove one, and the whole structure may collapse.
When U.S. democracy was in its earliest days, two and a half centuries ago, one of its champions, Patrick Henry, said, “The liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be, secure, when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them.”
In Russia today, the rulers’ transactions are increasingly concealed from the ruled. Disturbingly, as brave and determined truth-tellers are felled by assassins’ bullets, the Russian people have responded with a collective shrug. The reason for this apathy is evident. The vast majority of Russians get only government-filtered news, so outrage at these murders has been muted. Who in Russia will be left to hold authority accountable if the truth-tellers are written off as expendable?
During the Cold War there were established rules, and reporters knew which lines not to cross, which subjects to avoid. Not so today. The 17 who have been killed in recent years covered a wide range of topics: organized crime, corporate corruption, bribe-taking among public officials, unrest in the Northern Caucasus republics (for, though the war in Chechnya has been pronounced over, in reality, bloodletting has merely relocated to its neighbors). A charade of justice followed each of these killings. Typically, authorities quickly substitute robbery or personal grudges for real motives. At times, the official response would be comic were it not for the tragic outcomes.
In Togliatti, Russia’s Detroit, investigators attributed the murder of Aleksei Sidorov, editor of Tolyattinskoye Obozreniye to a random street brawl. Sidorov, so ran the official story, was stabbed with an ice pick after he refused a stranger’s appeals for vodka. Investigators cast only the most casual glance at the murdered reporter’s notebooks, computer, and tape recorders. In this case and others, police barely interviewed witnesses. Investigators rarely visited the victims’ news organizations. These crimes are attributed to “hooligans,” and the trail suddenly goes cold. Those who actually dispatch the hit men can breathe easy. The same curtain of secrecy that shrouded the KGB now protects its successor, the Federal Security Service.
Of course, truth was in short supply during the Cold War, and those who insisted on challenging the official version of events were often dispatched to long prison terms. My own parents, Endre and Ilona Marton, the last independent media members behind the Iron Curtain, were tried and convicted on fake charges of being CIA agents, for merely doing their jobs as American wire service reporters in Budapest. There was no CPJ then to protest, or to name and shame my parents’ captors and keep the pressure up, the way CPJ did to such powerful effect recently in the case of Roxana Saberi in Iran. As in Roxana’s case, my parents’ long prison sentences were cut short, and they were freed in 1956, after a barrage of articles in The New York Times.
Few journalists have paid a higher price for their courage than those who work for Novaya Gazeta among the most vibrant and independent voices left in the dimming Russian media landscape. Imagine going to work each day passing giant portraits of your newspaper’s three star reporters—Igor Domnikov, Yuri Shchekochikhin, and Anna Politkovskaya—all murdered. We honored Novaya Gazetas editor, Dmitry Muratov, with our International Press Freedom Award in 2007. For the sake of Russian society, the international community must do more than heap praise on murdered reporters.
In his 2008 inaugural address, Dmitry Medvedev declared that under his presidency the protection of human rights and freedom would drive “the sense and the substance of all state policy.” In Berlin a month later, he pledged that “all instances related to attempts on the life and health of journalists will be investigated and prosecuted to the end, regardless of when they occurred.”
We at CPJ will continue to remind him of that pledge and of the fact that a great nation with a legitimate claim to leadership on the world stage must uphold the rule of law on behalf of all citizens. We need world leaders, including those in the United States and Europe, to drive home that message.
Three years ago, at a memorial service for Anna Politkovskaya, one of the bravest of the brave, I pledged that we at CPJ would not forget Anna, what she stood for, and what she gave her life for. And so we have not. But Anna’s case remains unsolved. This past February, the three defendants in her murder trial walked free. It is true the evidence presented in court against them was skimpy. Once again, the state had given the masterminds an easy pass. Only the small fry were in the dock.
Even as we at CPJ pressed for a renewed investigation, another of Anna’s colleagues at Novaya Gazeta was gunned down on a Moscow street. Twenty-five-year-old Anastasiya Baburova’s assassination has pushed reporters at Novaya Gazeta to the edge. The paper’s management has asked the government to allow its reporters to carry guns as a condition of doing their jobs—another stain on the face of a nation that the world expected would be much farther along on the road to democracy on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Kati Marton is a board member of the Committee to Protect Journalists. Her seventh book, Enemies of the People—My Family’s Journey to America, a Cold War memoir, will be published by Simon and Schuster in October 2009. The entire Committee to Protect Journalists report is available at: http://cpj.org/reports/2009/09/anatomy-injustice-russian-journalist-killings.php