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Russia: Journalists Operate In Increasing Climate Of Fear

  • Jeremy Bransten

Last month's assault against a reporter of the Moscow-based "Novaya gazeta" paper highlights the dangers faced by investigative journalists in Russia. Since President Vladimir Putin took control of the Kremlin a year ago, journalists have faced beatings, death threats, kidnappings and sometimes murder. Police have shown little interest in tracking down the culprits. International press watchdogs say freedom of the press is increasingly under threat in Russia. RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten reports.

Prague, 10 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- In the early morning hours of 17 December, journalist Oleg Lurye and his wife were returning to their Moscow home when four men attacked them. The assailants locked Lurye's wife in the garage, where she was parking the car and proceeded to beat Lurye. The beating continued until Lurye lost consciousness.

Lurye and his editors at the semi-weekly "Novaya gazeta" newspaper say the attack was prompted by Lurye's investigative reporting, especially his recent articles about the alleged corruption of high-ranking officials. The night before the assault, Lurye appeared on the independent NTV television channel, where he discussed his work.

A week earlier, two of Lurye's colleagues -- also from "Novaya gazeta" -- were beaten in the city of Ryazan. Correspondents Mikhail Komarov and Yelena Denisova had written about the discovery of a bomb in the basement of a city apartment building last year -- at the height of a nationwide bombing campaign which the Kremlin blamed on alleged Chechen terrorists. When frightened local residents called the police to have the device defused, agents of the Federal Security Service (FSB) arrived on the scene to say the explosive has been part of an "exercise." The whole episode raised questions about the authorities' involvement in a series of unexplained bombings.

But despite the injuries they suffered, Lurye, Komarov and Denisova were lucky. In May 2000, their colleague Igor Domnikov did not escape with his life. An unidentified assailant repeatedly beat him on the head with a heavy object and left him unconscious in a pool of blood. Domnikov died two months later.

The unexplained attacks against investigative journalists of a single newspaper have garnered the attention of international media watchdogs. But scores of other reporters have been the targets of violence and some have been killed over the past few months. The perpetrators have never been found.

This week the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) wrote a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin to express concern about what it called "the government's apparent reluctance to investigate attacks on journalists in Russia."

The letter's author, CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper, told RFE/RL in a telephone interview that under the Putin Administration, journalists in Russia have faced mounting intimidation -- starting with the kidnapping early last year of RFE/RL war correspondent Andrei Babitsky.

"We definitely see a lot more pressure on journalists in Russia over this past year since Putin came to power, starting in early 2000 with the very sad case of Andrei Babitsky."

While careful not to draw a link between the government and increasing violence against journalists, Cooper says the authorities' lack of interest in investigating the attacks sets a dangerous precedent. At the very least, it appears to give license to those who seek to eliminate "inconvenient" journalists.

"The central government can lead by example. If it wants to have the murder of journalists well-investigated, it certainly could make sure that happens. And if that were to happen in Moscow, I think that would send an important message out to the provinces, that when a journalist is killed -- and it appears to be a threat against press freedom -- that needs to be acted on. But that's not happening right now."

Robert Coalson is editor of the "Moscow Times" Opinion Page. Until August of last year, he was program director of the St. Petersburg-based National Press Institute, a non-governmental organization promoting Russian independent media.

Coalson tells RFE/RL that the government, under Putin, has embarked on an effort to bring the whole country -- including the media -- under greater central control. Independent businessmen, local politicians and investigative journalists who get in the way have begun to feel the heat. Coalson notes that the administration of President Boris Yeltsin allowed for a greater diversity of views.

"People could do pretty much whatever they wanted and journalists were [only] under pressure from their owners and from local authorities. Under Putin, the tendency is to change that situation to one where everything is much more centrally controlled, to wrest away the authority over the media that local authorities used to have and the oligarchs used to have and to bring that more directly into Kremlin control. Basically, it's very much a return, I think, to the Soviet model."

Coalson says Putin's signing of a new national security doctrine last September brought formal attempts to "re-Sovietize" the media one step closer.

"It basically sets media and information issues -- open society issues -- in the context of national security rather than any development context or any other more-healthy context. So it's an instruction to executive officials on how to limit public access to information."

The campaign against the media has been shrewd. Independent journalists and the media moguls who employ them, such as embattled Media-Most boss Vladimir Gusinsky, are often portrayed to the public as corrupt or at best, politically partial. Journalists who fall by the wayside often engender little public sympathy and no official government attention.

Ann Cooper, of the Committee to Protect Journalists, acknowledges that some Russian media outlets may have discredited themselves by allowing themselves to be manipulated by political factions. But she emphasizes the crucial role played by the media in the Gorbachev years in bringing to light the truth about the communist regime.

She says attacking Russia's independent press and its journalists for the mistakes of a few would be tragic and inexcusable.

"It's very disheartening to see that the media, unfortunately in some cases, have discredited themselves. But that is not an excuse for the government to crack down on good, solid investigative reporting, which is still done by many media outlets in Russia." How long such investigative reporting will continue will increasingly depend on the courage of individual editors and journalists willing to risk attacks by shadowy assailants and official government enmity.

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