When journalist Nikolai Goshko went on the air the next day to suggest the then local governor and two other top-ranking officials might have been involved in the murder, he might have thought he was asking for trouble.
But he probably didn't suspect that his words would cost him five years in prison.
However, a court in Smolensk recently sentenced Goshko to 61 months in prison for defamation after the three officials pressed charges against him.
The sentence has deeply concerned media watchdogs both in Russia and abroad, particularly since the prosecution had only requested a one-year suspended sentence.
Oleg Panfilov is the director of Russia’s Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, an organization that monitors abuse against journalists in the former Soviet Union. He told RFE/RL that Goshko’s sentence is the heaviest of its kind ever handed down in Russia and illustrates a growing tendency among officials to sue journalists who criticize them.
“This is the longest sentence handed to a Russian journalist for slander," Panfilov said. "The article on slander in the Russian legislation is now very popular. In the past five years, large numbers of criminal cases have been opened following complaints by officials of various levels -- an average of up to 35 criminal cases a year.”
The maximum prison term for slander in Russia is three years. The court justified its unusually harsh ruling by saying that Goshko had already received a one-year suspended sentence and a five-year probation period for fraud in 1996.
Panfilov admitted that Goshko could have displayed more tact in his radio declarations in 2000 and should perhaps have offered some evidence to back up his claims that the officials were involved in the murder.
But he nonetheless called the sentence “absurd” and stressed that the journalist had not technically accused the three officials.
“The accusation is stupid, because Nikolai Goshko suggested live on radio five years ago that the governor of this region [Smolensk] could be involved in the murder of Sergei Novikov. These were just suppositions," Panfilov said. "Sentencing a journalist to five years in prison for such words is absurd.”
Panfilov said he had little doubt that local officials had pressured the judge into handing down the heavy sentence.
Panfilov said a new doctrine on information security -- signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin -- is at the heart of the sharp increase in the number of defamation cases against journalists. Officials, he said, are using this document to persecute journalists.
“Officials, especially in Russia’s regions, interpreted this document as a program of actions against journalists," Panfilov said. "The doctrine firstly implied the support of the state press, and secondly called on the independent press to be responsible. But Russian officials understand responsibility as obedience.”
This is not the first time media watchdogs have spoken out in defense of a Russian journalist sentenced for defamation. In 2003, German Galkin, an editor in the Russian city of Chelyabinsk, was given a 1 1/2-year sentence for alleged defamation of two local officials.
The Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, together with a number of leading media rights groups, actively lobbied for Galkin to be cleared. Galkin was released shortly after being imprisoned.
Panfilov was reluctant to speculate on Goshko’s fate. One thing he said he does not expect, however, is to see Russian journalists and public defend Goshko.
“Goshko’s trial is an exceptional case. But there are numerous other instances when the authorities destroy a popular newspaper or a popular television station, or persecute journalists in various ways," Panfilov said. "The public opinion remains silent, so I am afraid that the fate of Nikolai Goshko will depend on international organizations rather than on Russian journalists.”
The Glasnost Foundation, a leading media watchdog, has asked the Smolensk court in a letter to justify its ruling.
The New-York based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has declared it was “outraged” at the sentence.