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Russia: Monitors Say Russia Among World's Most Dangerous Countries For Reporters

By Catherine Fitzpatrick

Russia has long suffered from the reputation of being among the world's most dangerous countries for journalists. The perception has been built over time by various international press-freedom monitors who, year after year, find Russia overrepresented among the world's developed nations and even among the Community of Democracies in terms of murdered reporters. Their colleagues in Russia have even longer lists of reporters allegedly killed for journalism.

Killings of journalists are widely used by analysts to measure the level of press freedom in a country. To be sure, if few or no media workers are killed, it can mean that there is so little freedom that no reporter ever sticks his neck out far enough to be killed. If many reporters are killed, it can be explained by a war zone or rampant crime and settling of scores. Still, regardless of these sliding parameters, when year after year a country produces a death list of journalists, it is a highly troubling indicator of an absence of press freedom.

Each year, the lists of journalists killed released by groups like Committee to Protect Journalists, International Press Institute, and Reporters Without Borders are carefully studied by the news media and policy institutes to see how Russia's mixed record on democracy is faring. And this year, with just two cases on Russia's record, there is still no inclination to drop concerns about media rights in Russia because both cases symbolize as well as actualize what are the worst features of Russia's record: failure to safeguard investigative journalism and failure to protect journalists in war zones.

Adlan Khasanov, 33, a cameraman working for Reuters' Moscow bureau, was killed in the bombing of Grozny's Victory Day parade celebrating the Soviet defeat of Nazi Germany. While terrorists apparently did not target Khasanov, because he was a reporter risking harm by proximity to Chechen President Akhmad Kadirov, who was targeted in the blast, Khasanov's case goes on the monitors' lists. Even if not individually targeted, reporters killed in terrorist acts or wars are included because their professional duties put them in harm's way.

The slaying of Paul Khlebinov, 41, editor in chief of the Russian edition of "Forbes" magazine, shocked the world and frightened the immediate community of expatriate journalists and other foreigners in Moscow. Khlebnikov was stabbed repeatedly after leaving his office in Moscow. An American of Russian descent, Khlebnikov spoke fluent Russia and had reported about crime and politics. Khlebnikov's family has lobbied for a thorough investigation of the killing. Authorities have put together a "Chechen hypothesis" which some local monitors reject as scapegoating.

Meanwhile, the Vienna-based International Press Institute chronicled three cases, including those of Adlan Khasanov and Paul Khlebnikov but also of Payl Peloyan, editor in chief of the Russian-language "Armyanski pereulok," who was found stabbed to death on the outskirts of Moscow. Local monitors believe his death was not likely related to any journalism, because the magazine was an artistic and literary publication read by the Armenian community in Moscow and did not appear so frequently or have such a high visibility that it could explain a motive for murder. Peloyan did not appear involved in any kind of controversial writing or investigation. His higher profile as editor of a journal associated with the Armenian community might have made it easier for him to become the target of a hate crime -- violence against non-ethnic-Russians is rampant in Moscow. In that sense, his profession could have set him up for what was a hate crime. Or it might have been merely a criminal manner related to business, but nothing is known for certain. Knowing of their own country's reputation for dangerous journalism, the police often announce, as they did in this case that "they cannot rule out that his murder was related to his profession."

Where Russia's statistics really begin to be troubling is when they are viewed over a span of time. Mikhail Komissar, the head of Russia's Interfax news agency, told "The Guardian" on 12 January that 10 of his journalists have been killed in 15 years and that they had to perform their jobs with bodyguards present. Komissar himself said he has 24-hour-protection, has changed his will and sent his daughter to study overseas to avoid a potential kidnapping, and has revised the structure of ownership of his company to prevent rivals from seizing assets. Komissar's account of his increasingly profitable company and proximity to Russia's leaders in covering the top political stories in part explain the high risk of working for his agency. "Interfax is very attractive to powerful oligarchs because it is influential and profitable. It could be a good instrument for their vanity," he told "The Guardian," explaining that one oligarch delivered a map of his daughter's route to school to show his family's vulnerability. Interfax is now also in the credit- and business-rating agency, increasing their company's potential targeting by rivals. The intertwining of business and media make the job of monitors of deaths related to press freedom particularly hard. It is often impossible to determine whether a death is really related to what someone wrote or to his media company's business dealings in the shark-infested waters of Russian commerce.

The Glasnost Defense Foundation (GDF), a Russian nongovernmental media-monitoring group in Moscow, takes issue with the very short lists of its Western colleagues. GDF had 13 journalists in its list of those killed in 2004 and another missing and presumed dead. In addition to Khlebnikov, Khasanov, and Peloyan, GDF presents a full list of all slain journalists to increase public awareness of the issue of journalists' safety, which is admittedly about the safety of any public figure in Russia, given the propensity for politicians, bankers, priests, and human rights activists also to wind up dead.

For example, Efim Sukhanov, ATK-Media journalist in Arkhangelsk, was said to have been killed for reasons other than his journalism, and his murderer has been convicted. The death of Farit Urazbaev, a cameraman for Vladivostok TRK, was also not related to his profession. Yevgenii Matveyev, an NTV producer, died in a car accident in Tula. It is unclear why the organization even publicizes these lists when they are not related to journalism per se, but it is partly out of a different perception of journalism as a unionized activity in Russia, where the union's members feel some sense of kinship or solidarity to other members suffering an untimely death. Zoya Ivanova, an anchor for Buryat television, who was found dead on 20 June, but it is unknown whether her high profile cost her life.

But using the same kind of criteria for the inclusion of Khasanov, GDF included the case of Oleg Belozerov, director general of the RIA-Novosti news bureau and editor in chief of Nizhnee Povolzhe's edition of "Argumenty i fakty." He was killed in the terrorist attack on the Moscow-Volgograd plane on 24 August. His case might fall into a gray area in that while he was on a business trip related to media, he was unlikely to have been covering a news event per se at the time of death. Still, Russians include him in their list of those whose deaths are related to their profession.

Other such included cases are of Vladimir Pritchin, editor in chief of Severobaykal television station, killed in Buryatia on 18 September; Yan Travinskii, a St. Petersburg journalist who was killed on 27 October in Irkutsk; Aleksander Klimenko, a photo journalist for "Amurskaya pravda" who died in a car accident on 20 October in Blagoveshchensk. Two of the latter three cases might be tangentially related to journalism; it is unclear whether the circumstances of the car accident were suspicious. Maksim Maksimov of St. Peterburg disappeared on 12 June and was believed kidnapped and killed, possibly related to his investigative work into the murder of parliamentarian Galina Starovoitova. His last published article was on the Starovoitova case. His case appears to be one that Western monitors ought to have included.

Aleksei Simonov, director of GDF, said he believes his organization must present the media and the public at large with a full list of killed journalists each year because they have to err on the side of caution. In Russia, car accidents can sometimes occur on purpose.

The seeming trend of deaths has not been reassuring. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), which often takes its information from local groups and wire services and is not always able to investigate every death independently, said 90 journalists have been killed in Russia related to their profession in the last 10 years. In 2000, eight were killed; in 2002, seven; in 2003, 12, just two of which were premeditated killings.

Simonov suggested that IFJ's figures are not entirely correct. "They [IFJ] only include cases where they can absolutely clearly prove that the death of the journalist was related to his professional activity," Simonov told "Kommersant" on 19 January. "We believe that every case of the death of a journalist is related to his professional activity until proven otherwise." Simonov conceded that of the list of 13 journalists who died in 2004, just two were related to their professional activities -- i.e. he excluded Peloyan's case. He blamed the crackdown on the media for the reduction of numbers, not any improvement in safety. "Journalists have become more obedient, there are fewer cases related with obvious criminal elements because the criminal elements have intertwined with the law-enforcement agencies, and journalists experience pressure from both sides."

Western groups work on the opposing principle -- they exclude all cases of journalists killed until they can prove that a journalist was indeed killed for reasons related to his or her profession. Because of the difficulties of research and documentation from afar, cases tend to be left out unless they appear very solid.

Another indicator of the dangers of journalism is the existence of long lists of unsolved cases. Monitoring groups do not present their lists of unsolved cases year after year as any kind of indicator, possibly because they simply cannot gather more facts on cold trails. But where Russia is concerned, suspicion mounts that a case is related to a person's profession when it remains unsolved.

For example, in the aftermath of the Beslan school hostage taking and the abrogation of the right to vote for governor and other changes arguably reversing democratic progress in Russia, the case of Dmitrii Kholodov was quietly dropped. Kholodov died when his briefcase blew up after he received documents from a contact. He had been reporting on corruption within the armed forces and was said to have angered Russian military authorities with his articles on the Russia Army's preparations for military operations in Chechnya.

While retired military officer Pavel Popovskikh was initially charged in the death, he later said he was pressured into confession while in detention, due to poor health. Later, a Russian court acquitted six men charged with Kholodov's murder, "Moscow News" reported on 6 October 2004. The journalists' parents have said they intend to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

Regardless of their differing methodologies, both Russian and Western press freedom watchdogs agree that President Vladimir Putin and other government officials bear responsibility for the lack of safety that their journalistic colleagues enjoy. CPJ went so far as to include Putin on its list of "Enemies of the Press" in 2004. The claim is not related to any allegations that the Russian government itself plans and executes targeted assassinations of journalists. Rather, the charge is that the government has tolerated a climate of impunity by neither following through cases to prosecution nor defending journalists' right to investigative reporting.

[First published on 24 January 2005.]