In a separate session before the opening of the congress, participants discussed a global campaign against the continuing murders of journalists in Russia.
In chilling footage shown at the start of the session, a female television journalist can be seen stumbling as she chases after a soldier while gunshots are fired overhead.
Participants at the May 28 discussion were convinced of the need to challenge the Russian government and its failure to adequately protect journalists.
But with no government officials present, some speakers said the debate was unlikely to change anything.
“Our journalists have no protection, and that tells you that journalism is a very risky profession and that there is a great deal of unhappiness in society," said Vladimir Ryzhkov, an independent State Duma deputy. "There are so many differing facts, so much corruption, so much crime committed in our country, that journalists who write about these things then find themselves at enormous risk.”
The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), which holds its world congress every three years, chose Moscow for its 2007 session at a location just a few steps from the White House. But despite repeated invitations, government officials, including President Vladimir Putin, did not attend the event.
Dmitry Muratov, the editor in chief of “Novaya gazeta" newspaper -- where journalist Anna Politkovskaya worked before she was murdered in October 2006 -- was scathing in his doubts about what the preliminary session dedicated to impunity could achieve.
"There’s been a lot of talk of ‘condemnation’ and ‘discussion’ and the need to send a message to the authorities at this session," Muratov said. "That is, we're talking about people’s deaths in a session that’s not part of the congress itself. It’s optional -- it’s the warm-up act, as rock musicians would say. There’s no one here representing the government, who are the ones who should be listening to the presentations that are being given. Or maybe you think they’ll be able to watch this later on Russian television?”
According to the IFJ, Russia is now the most dangerous place to be a journalist, after Iraq. John Crowfoot, an analyst with the IFJ, has produced a database that outlines the deaths and disappearances of 289 journalists in Russia since 1993.
The youngest to have died is a 19-year-old reporter killed last September; the oldest, a retired journalist of 80, was stabbed to death in his home a few years ago. Forty-seven of those killed were women.
The figures are staggering. But Crowfoot says the deaths are one of just numerous indicators of how dangerous it is to be a journalist in Russia.
“There are attacks on journalists, there are attacks on editorial offices, there is cyber-warfare against websites, there are all kinds of different means of pressure," he said. "In some parts of the country, it's said that you don’t need to actually commit much violence because there are already so many levers -- control over printing presses and so on, which remain in the hands of the local authorities.”
The IFJ used the May 28 forum to launching a commission to investigate impunity in the killings of five journalists in Russia whose cases remain unresolved. (The journalists are Valery Ivanov, Aleksei Sidorov, Eduard Markevich, Dmitry Kholodov, and Vladimir Kirsanov.)
Miklos Haraszti, a representative for media freedom at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said the lack of government action in defending journalists has created an atmosphere in which violence can flourish.
“There is only one thing more intimidating for free speech than harassment, physical attacks and murder of media workers -- and that is when governments tolerate harassment, attacks and murders,” Haraszti said.
The guest of honor at the preliminary session -- and one with at least a tentative link to the current government -- was to have been former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. But minutes before the opening, he telephoned to say he would not be attending.
RUSSIA'S SLAIN JOURNALISTS: The International Federation of Journalists has launched an international commission to investigate impunity in the killings of five journalists in Russia whose cases remain unresolved:
Kholodov, a reporter with "Moskovsky komsomolets" in the Russian capital, died on October 17, 1994, when a booby-trapped briefcase he had been given by a source exploded in the newspaper's offices. Kholodov was investigating allegations of corruption in the upper echelons of the Russian military, including Pavel Grachev, then the defense minister. Six army officers were charged with involvement in the killing, but were twice acquitted by military courts. The Russian Prosecutor-General's Office launched a new probe in January 2006.
On May 17, 2001, Kirsanov, the founder and editor in chief of the "Kurganskiye vesti" independent newspaper, vanished outside his office. Kirsanov had been reporting on alleged criminal activities by local officials in the Ural city of Kurgan, and had been threatened on numerous occasions. The Federal Security Service, the Interior Ministry, and organized crime units all took place in the investigation of Kirsanov's disappearance, but the case has never been solved.
Markevich, the editor and publisher of "Novy reft," a local newspaper in the town of Reftinskiy, in Sverdlovsk Oblast, was found dead on September 18, 2001. He had been shot in the back. "Novy reft" was often critical of local officials and Markevich, 29, had reported receiving threatening telephone calls. In 1998, two unknown assailants had broken into his apartment and beaten him up in front of his pregnant wife.
Ivanov and Sidorov, journalists with the "Tolyattinskoye obozreniye" newspaper in the industrial city of Tolyatti, were both killed over the course of 18 months. On April 29, 2002, 32-year-old Ivanov, the paper's editor in chief and a deputy in the local legislative assembly, was shot eight times in the head at point-blank range. His close friend and editorial successor, 31-year-old Sidorov, was killed on October 9, 2003, after being stabbed in the chest with an ice pick.
"Tolyattinskoye obozreniye" was known for its investigative reports on crime and government corruption. Sidorov was also known to be investigating Ivanov's murder at the time of his death. Journalists believe the deaths of both editors were meant as retaliation for the newspaper's work. A local factory welder was charged with Sidorov's murder, but was acquitted. No one has ever been implicated in Ivanov's murder.