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Dangers Don't Deter Russia's Young Journalists

  • Chloe Arnold

Mourners at Anastasia Baburova's wake in Moscow

Mourners at Anastasia Baburova's wake in Moscow

MOSCOW -- Outside the editorial offices of "Novaya gazeta" in central Moscow, someone has laid two red roses. There is no note beside them, and they have already begun to wither on their dirty patch of snow.

But it's clear for whom the flowers are meant. Anastasia Baburova, a 25-year-old Crimea native who died in Moscow last week after she was shot along with prominent human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov, had worked at the weekly newspaper for six months.

Markelov had represented "Novaya gazeta" in a number of court cases. But on the day of his death, he had been focused on another issue -- his plan to appeal the early release from prison of a Russian Army officer convicted in the murder of a young Chechen woman.
On January 29, 'Novaya gazeta' editor Dmitry Muratov met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev: Interview

A masked gunman shot Markelov at point-blank range on a Moscow street in broad daylight. When Baburova, who was walking with Markelov, attempted to intervene, she was shot as well, becoming the fourth "Novaya gazeta" journalist to die on the job in less than a decade.

"It's clear that she could have done a great deal for the newspaper. She'd only just begun," says Oleg Khlebnikov, a deputy editor. "It's a sad coincidence that her article about fascist groups in Russia was published in the paper the very day that she was killed."

Inside the building, portraits of Baburova and Markelov hang at the end of the central corridor, and many more flowers have been heaped on the table beneath them. The office is hushed, but it is production day, and the newspaper is being put out as usual.

Journalists In The Crosshairs

For Khlebnikov, who has worked at the newspaper for over 12 years, Baburova's death seems depressingly familiar. His tiny office, a jumble of old newspapers piled high on the floor and on rickety chairs and tables, is where Yury Shchekochikhin used to work.

Shchekochikhin was an experienced journalist who wrote investigative pieces about high-level corruption. He died in 2003 of a mysterious ailment his colleagues alleged was the result of poisoning.

Three years later, another colleague, Anna Politkovskaya, was shot in the stairwell of her home. There was international outrage at her death, which was seen as retaliation for her outspoken views on the Kremlin and a number of critical books she had written about Russia's campaigns in Chechnya.

Anna Politkovskaya's death drew international condemnation.
A fourth "Novaya gazeta" journalist, Igor Domnikov, died in July 2000 after being attacked in the entryway to his Moscow apartment building by an assailant who struck him on the head repeatedly with a heavy object.

The string of violent deaths could be intimidating to young Russians considering a career with an independent paper like "Novaya gazeta." But Khlebnikov says journalists like Baburova still flock to the newspaper, and many of its staff today are in their early 20s.

"Anastasia chose our newspaper. Before that she worked at 'Izvestia,' and she was a very experienced journalist for her age," he says. "She wasn't in any way driven by material considerations -- and in that sense she lost out by coming here. But she understood that this was the sort of newspaper where she could write what she thought and what she wanted. She couldn't see another one like this."

Exposing Corruption

"Novaya gazeta" is partly owned by former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and independent-minded businessman Aleksandr Lebedev, a former KGB colonel who earlier this month purchased Britain's "Evening Standard" newspaper.

"Novaya gazeta" is seen as one of just a handful of newspapers operating in Russia today that are not controlled by the authorities. A national newspaper with its own highly popular website, it exposes corruption from the level of local mayors to the corridors of the Kremlin. Reporters with the paper have covered human rights violations in the North Caucasus and the country's growing xenophobia.

Baburova's death is thought to be the accidental fallout of a targeted hit on Markelov. But observers do not exclude the possibility that last week's double murder might have been tied to sources threatened by the newspaper's investigative reporting.

Colleagues of Politkovskaya, Shchekochikhin, and Domnikov feel certain their deaths were a direct result of their reporting, which was often critical of the state.

Politkovskaya's death caused an international outcry, but was barely acknowledged by then-President Vladimir Putin. The current president, Dmitry Medvedev, surprised many by inviting Gorbachev and "Novaya gazeta" editor Dmitry Muratov to the Kremlin on January 29 to discuss the Baburova case.

Reporters at "Novaya gazeta" know they put their lives at risk whenever they cover stories that expose corruption or probe Kremlin policies. In a controversial move, Lebedev has now called for Russian security forces to allow his correspondents to carry guns in self-defense. But even that has not been enough to turn aspiring journalists away from the profession.

'People Want To Have A Say'

Natalia Gurova has six months to go until she graduates from Moscow State University's journalism faculty. Like Baburova, who grew up in Sevastopol in the Crimea, Gurova traveled a long way to take up her place at the prestigious institution. Her family comes from Syktyvkar, the capital of the Komi Republic in the Ural Mountains.

"Of course this incident [with Baburova] shocked the whole faculty," Gurova says. "Lots of the students went to her funeral, and organized an appeal fund for her parents. It's an indication of the lawlessness in our country today. Because to kill a completely innocent person in broad daylight in the center of Moscow -- it really stunned us all."

But asked whether the latest killing made Gurova more wary of wanting to be journalist in Russia today, the answer is a definite no.

"I don't think the number of students wanting to become journalists is going to decrease, because they see that among their own friends and those younger than them, people are beginning to react to the social and political situation in the country," she says.

"They want to take part in this, not just sit at home and keep quiet about what's going on. They want somehow to participate and have some sort of say," she continues. "I think perhaps the opposite is true -- perhaps even more people will become journalists now."

Gurova concedes, however, that being a journalist in Russia can mean putting your safety at risk.

"I agree that it is dangerous, and it's not even that simple. Because in our country there's also the phenomenon that you often have to jump all sorts of bureaucratic hurdles in order to write a good report. You need to make some sort of pact with someone to get information, and that can be dangerous, too," she says.

"But it depends what you are writing about. If you write in depth about politics and say what you actually think, that can be dangerous."

The Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based watchdog that monitors journalist deaths worldwide, estimates that 49 have been killed in Russia since 1992. Only Iraq, where 136 have died, and Algeria, where 60 have lost their lives, rank higher on their table.

But for Gurova, who hopes to work for a foreign news organization writing about Russia, newspapers like "Novaya gazeta" are a rare glimpse of what journalism in Russia should be all about.

"I think everywhere there is some kind of censorship. Sometimes it comes from within -- a person censors himself on what he should or shouldn't write," she says. "But I think that with publications like 'Novaya gazeta,' you can see that the reporters write what they think, and not what the authorities want them to write."

Back in his tiny office, Oleg Khlebnikov agrees.

"We're not always satisfied with the way certain editions come out -- perhaps sometimes they are too full of depressing, negative news," he says. "But since quite often there isn't anyone else to write these things, it's our job to do this."

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