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Media Matters: August 2, 2004

2 August 2004, Volume 4, Number 14

By Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

The 9 July slaying of American journalist Paul Klebnikov, the editor in chief of the Russian-language version of "Forbes" magazine, coming on the heels of at least six other killings of Russian reporters this year, has alarmed Russia. Many observers are wondering if the overall crackdown on freedom of expression that began with President Vladimir Putin's first election in 2000 will now take a more deadly turn. Klebnikov was the first foreign journalist to be killed in post-Soviet Russia outside the war zone in Chechnya.

Although the Prosecutor-General Vladimir Ustinov is personally supervising the special-crimes-unit investigation of the murder, Western commentators have been appalled by the seeming indifference to the crime. "The Wall Street Journal" on 12 July called the gunning down of Klebnikov near his downtown Moscow office "the most dramatic display yet of the lawlessness that has Russia in its grip." The daily wrote that the state is itself a crucial element of the problem." Putin's seizure of Russian television and other efforts to reduce media freedom are seen as implicating him in contributing to the atmosphere that led to Klebnikov's killing, and has made at least "The Wall Street Journal" ask whether Putin should be welcome at high-profile international meetings such as summits of the Group of Eight (G-8) leading industrialized countries.

Russian journalists, hardened by years of danger in and out of conflict zones and toughened by their constant skirmishes with bureaucrats wielding the complicated and obstructive Russian press law, have a different take on the Klebnikov murder. Although they acknowledge that the brazen killing of a foreign journalist is an alarming sign of a possibly worsening situation, they are mindful that the same kind of world attention has not been attracted by the murders of their Russian colleagues. And because they know how complicated their own situations are, they do not accept quite as readily as outsiders the contention that a high-profile murder is necessarily indicative of a worsening climate for press freedom or of additional risks for themselves.

Oleg Panfilov, director of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations (CJES) in Moscow and a long time press-freedom monitor, is in a position to make an informed judgment about just how dangerous the profession of journalism is in Russia. Originally, Panfilov was moved to report on the killings of dozens of his colleagues in Tajikistan, where he formerly lived and worked, during that country's 1992-97 civil war. Since leaving the Central Asian republic with others who faced persecution in the 1990s, Panfilov, now based in Moscow, has worked in a number of nonprofit organizations devoted to press freedom, including the Glasnost Defense Foundation. Currently he runs CJES from an office in the building of the Russian Union of Journalists, although his organization, founded in February 2000, has no formal ties to the union. The collegial relationship with the union, however, lends CJES the power of its several thousand members. In Russia, at a time when civil society groups are being increasingly watched and curbed, "that makes it hard to destroy," says Panfilov.

Another form of protection for CJES is the attention and respect accorded to its reports and investigations by Western embassies and groups like the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in New York and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in Paris, as well as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the European Commission.

"We have friends, and we don't hide it, and if somebody wanted to do something to us, they would see what kind of connections we have," Panfilov told RFE/RL. Similar Western connections did not help Klebnikov, he acknowledges. However, since the investigations into that killing are still under way, Panfilov believes it is not possible to state with any certainty that Klebnikov was killed because of his journalism.

Each week, Panfilov and his colleagues receive dozens of reports of harassment of journalists, ranging from the obstruction of reporters trying to get into a City Hall press conference to deadly assaults by forces ranging from local criminal groups to purported government agents. Over the years, Oleg has held the hands of numerous spouses and co-workers of journalists who were murdered, in most cases for their professional work. He has compiled hundreds of pages of dossiers on the circumstances of deaths, including interviews with police and prosecutors and testimonies from colleagues and friends.

Panfilov has handled the cases of journalists killed in crossfire in the war in Chechnya, and has reviewed the evidence about some cases of journalists believed to have been intentionally assassinated there. He has seen reporters who have reported on local official corruption go missing and later turn up dead. He has followed the stories of drive-by hits by professional contract killers. From this experience, he concludes there is no question that journalism can be a deadly profession in Russia, as are other jobs that bring people into contact with publicity, power, and money.

Yet precisely because he has seen so much violence directed against the media, Panfilov is cautious about making the claim that any particular journalist's death is directly related to what he or she wrote or filmed. In many cases, the story is more complicated than that, and the different strands of a journalist's life can be difficult to tease apart.

The first point Panfilov makes, as do Western organizations, is that the purpose of chronicling journalists' deaths is to try to define some aspect of the status of press freedom. That is a different aim than the promotion of corporate solidarity within the profession. Unlike CJES, trade unions or other similar associations look into any arrest or death in this risky profession and try to eliminate the reasons -- whether the situation was due to disgruntled local criminals or to overzealous highway patrol officers randomly stopping drivers. Western organizations have tended to be more scrupulous about including journalists on lists of people murdered because of their professional activity. While some international press freedom groups keep lists of cases under investigation primarily to let governments know that they are watching, Panfilov is concerned that some still have too many invalidated cases in their files and that this could create an inflated sense of the climate of press freedom.

Some groups in Russia, too, have tended to put on their lists any journalist who dies an unnatural death because they live in a country where car accidents have been used as tools of revenge or policy. They argue that it is better not to miss a case and to keep it under investigation, than consign it to the memory hole. Panfilov has worked to try to remove speculation and inflated numbers from his list and therefore makes a surprising comment, given his role: Except for deaths in armed conflict zones, few current cases of journalists killed in Russia are so clear cut as to allow him to make an unambiguous statement that he or she died in the line of duty.

"Russia is not Colombia," Panfilov says. "They won't kill a journalist here for what they write." Discounting the idea that exposure of official corruption can lead to death, Panfilov comments that "the authorities don't read the newspapers about corruption. 'The Moscow Times' wrote something alleging Putin's corruption once, and 'The Moscow Times' is still open. No one was killed, and everything is fine."

In the Western press, Klebnikov's killing is now seen through the lens of his last dinner conversations with colleagues, where he was said to have commented that Russia was becoming less of a "wild East" and that contract killings were becoming less frequent. Panfilov looks at the case from the perspective of a Russian journalist who has studied numerous cases of the persecution and murder of reporters, who has traveled extensively throughout the country, and who has spent thousands of hours talking with media workers. "Klebnikov did not have influence on Russian society," Panfilov said, calculating the possible motives for murdering the American by the ubiquitous Russian concept of "rating."

"'Forbes' was read only by some businessmen and politicians," Panfilov said, discounting the theory that Klebnikov's publication of a list of the 100 most wealthy Russians could have been a motive for his death. "He didn't make any discovery," Panfilov said about the list, which had not been published in the same format by any Russian outlet, but which did not contain any real revelations. "Rich people [in Russia] don't hide that they are rich, they don't ride bicycles like in Sweden or go to McDonald's like Americans. They show off their $150,000 Rolex watches, ride around in Mercedes, and live in huge houses." Panfilov does not believe that anyone on the list would kill a U.S. magazine editor with a limited audience just for being "outed." They were all already known, especially to the authorities.

Commenting on possible motivations for Klebnikov's slaying, Panfilov speculated that Klebnivkov might have had established sources in Russian security agencies and might have befriended some figures from past or current intelligence or Kremlin security. Western sources have not made such claims about Klebnikov, and they could not be independently verified. It is common knowledge in Russia, however, that security agencies have factions and rivalries with other so-called power agencies such as the police and prosecutors. They have been known to set up journalists to leak compromising information, sometimes making that reporter and his or her media outlet a target of revenge. When one such group does not like what another group has published, they fight back in what sometimes develops into a war of "kompromat." In such wars, the soft targets are the journalists. A naive American journalist might fall into such a murky situation, Panfilov told RFE/RL.

When different agencies in Russia are fighting against each other, the paradoxical result can be a sort of illusory press freedom, as each side releases hitherto classified information and/or known misinformation to try to affect events or discredit their rival. Various offices acquire "their own" journalists and feed them tips or even scripts. In a transitional country with a weak media and low journalistic professionalism, "the press" is less about "the fourth estate" than it is about powerful competing groupings, whether in government or government-sponsored industries like the energy sector. By the same token, when a president with a background in the KGB like Putin approaches the problem of the press, the effect is more like one agency gaining the upper hand over other factions and agencies and turning the game of "kompromat" to its own ends, as opposed to resembling the more classic model of the suppression of a flourishing, independent press community.

Even given these realities, Panfilov believes the greatest danger to his profession is not contract murderers. "What's dangerous isn't in the long list of murdered, but in the fact that journalists are poor professionals, poorly educated, and very deficient in legal education," he said. "The authorities put pressure on journalists not by killing them, but by opening legal cases against them." In 2002, his group counted 49 criminal cases against journalists by officials or their surrogates. In the nine years of former President Boris Yeltsin's reign, there were only a few such cases.

As an example of how cases can be misleading, Panfilov cited the case of Pail Peloyan, the Armenian editor of a Russian-language magazine on Armenian culture, who was killed on 17 July, just days after Klebnikov's slaying, sparking websites and news agencies to speculate that a rash of such killings was under way. Yet Peloyan was not really a journalist, but worked at the Academy of Sciences. He edited a literary journal that had not been published in two years, Panfilov said. As a sociologist, Peloyan did some writing, but he evidently did not publish anything connected to politics or business, so it seems impossible to say that his death says something about the level of freedom of speech in Russia or was even related to the profession of journalism.

When journalists are killed for professionally related reasons, who is to blame? While top authorities might not be directly involved in journalists' deaths, through their negligence and reluctance to prosecute those connected to power and influence, they contribute to a climate of impunity, Western organizations maintain. Frequently, the appeals of CPJ or RSF to the Kremlin are about trying to instill a sense of responsibility for what happens to reporters and a realization that the failure to protect journalists and to prosecute their persecutors has wide-ranging repercussions.

Soon after Klebnikov's death, a little-noticed report of the trial against the accused murderers of Dmitrii Kholodov was indicative of a chronic inability in Russia to secure convictions in cases involving murdered journalists. Kholodov was an investigative reporter for "Moskovskii komsomolets" who died in October 1994 when a briefcase that he had picked up at a luggage locker in a train station exploded when he opened it. Kholodov had written widely about corruption within the Defense Ministry and he believed the briefcase contained incriminating documents. The Kholodov case is a dramatic example of how such court cases can grind on for years, with ample testimony and concern from local and international groups, and yet come to nothing. After a second trial, the military officers accused of killing Kholodov were acquitted on 10 June.

"[Kholodov's case] will successfully die, and there is no hope it will be investigated again," lamented Panfilov. "Russian generals will never allow officers of the Russian Army to be punished," he said. Panfilov said it is up to the courts to decide if the officers are implicated, but like other commentators he is more wistful than confident about the independence of the judiciary.

Panfilov says that figures as high as 225 journalists killed in Russia since 1991 are erroneous. There are at most 155, he says, but even that number is a list of suspected deaths, not confirmed killings of journalists for their professional activity. While not completely discounting the problem of assassination, Panfilov believes there are worse problems for the media. "They include harsh censorship in Chechnya, a large number of criminal cases, various forms of pressure, the rebirth of propaganda," he said. "It's when they close television stations or destroy journalists like Leonid Parfenov or Yevgenii Kiselev, who are forced to work in smaller media outlets." Parfenov was recently dismissed from NTV's "Namedni" and Kiselev, formerly an NTV and then TV 6 anchor, is now editing "Moskovskie novosti." "What's dangerous is that Putin is reestablishing an authoritarian regime with a docile press that will not challenge him," Panfilov said.

Under Yeltsin, a different dynamic operated. The twice-elected Russian leader was grateful to the press for helping him hold on to power and did not turn on it. But Putin, as a former KGB officer, cannot work with the press. "He fears it, therefore he destroys it," Panfilov said.

Currently no journalists are in jail in Russia, but there are those who face legal harassment because of kompromat wars. Last year, German Galkin of Chelyabinsk was sentenced under Articles 318 and 319 of the Russian Criminal Code, which deal with the libel of officials. Environmental journalist Grigorii Pasko was also the subject of a high-profile case of the suppression of press freedom.

More light needs to be shed on the problems of censorship and accreditation, Panfilov argues, and on the kinds of pressures brought on foreign news bureaus. He believes there are at least 20 foreign journalists who have not received visas because of their coverage of Chechnya, including reporters from the Czech Republic, Latvia, Hungary, Germany, Denmark, and the United States. There could be others who have not wished to publicize their problems because they hope to work out a deal. "When I talk to foreign journalists, they all say they fear the Foreign Ministry because it constantly threatens them with taking away their visas or pulling their accreditation," Panfilov said. Western media organizations tend not to publicize such difficulties in order to minimize the difficulties with the host country. The OSCE has noted the problem of visas and accreditation in recent reports.

Another problem is the suppression of official information to which the public is legally entitled. "We've seen an epidemic of refusals to provide information in the last four years. As soon as Putin came, they all remembered the traditions of the Soviet era," Panfilov said. "They release information or not on a whim, and if you say there are laws about this, they don't care." A key weakness is that many journalists don't know how to fight using the tools they have. They could be doing more to defend their own rights. In the Gorbachev and Yeltsin eras, the heady days when people were concerned about obstructions of glasnost and perestroika and there was a taste for revealing what had been hidden for decades, articles in the Criminal Code were passed punishing officials who block information required by the public or who hindered the professional activity of journalists. This punitive approach actually did little to deter obstructive officials, and journalists often did not feel confident enough to invoke them. "They don't want to ruin their relations with the authorities," Panfilov explained. Even if they wish to take on the bureaucracy, they usually do not have the money for lawyers.

Asked if larger, wealthier media outlets had lawyers they could deploy in such lawsuits, Panfilov explained that media tend to have on staff legal professionals ("yuristy") who provide advice, but not trial attorneys ("advokaty") who could represent them in court. Even larger, more established papers are unlikely to battle the authorities.

Many journalists have found themselves harassed with libel cases. Panfilov sees these cases as a "manifestations of democracy." "If the journalists are right, then they will win" such cases he said matter-of-factly. "Half these civil libel cases are the journalists' own fault. They're a good example of the lack of professionalism among journalists."

While the government is bent on trying to restore Soviet-era propaganda traditions, Panfilov said, it is now dealing with a different public than 15 years ago. "[People] already know they can buy a ticket and at least go to the Czech Republic and take a vacation," he said about Russians today, noting that they are now increasingly exposed to outside news and views. Curiously, he said, officials are citing polls of people claiming to want less press freedom and more censorship. Such surveys tend to backfire, Panfilov said, when you realize that given the predominance of government-sponsored media, officials were claiming a majority public sentiment for censoring the government.

Panfilov also noted the gaps in pay between Moscow reporters -- where salaries average $500-$600 per month and some very famous and popular journalists getting $3000-$5000 or more -- and those in the provinces, who make salaries around $70-$80 per month. The low pay often forces journalists into other kinds of business, sometimes risky, and makes them prone to accept payment to run advertisements as news copy.

Thinking about what works to protect journalists vulnerable to attacks from a wide variety of forces in a still-unstable Russian democracy, Panfilov said that the "foreign card" still works very well. "Often, when Western articles appear, we win the case, because Russians still fear the Western press," he said. "They think it's more terrifying than the Russian media. Thank God it still works." Panfilov cited an article that appeared in the international edition of "Time" magazine that caused Western embassies to inquire officially into a case involving a regional journalist. Those inquiries prompted the governor to back off and release the journalist.

Sadly, Panfilov said, the tactic of invoking foreign attention has not really worked in the cases of investigations into journalists' murders. Not a single investigation in the dozens of such cases has ever produced a conviction. He believes this is more due to a lack of a strong civil society and a functioning justice system than anything else. "Civil society grew during the Yeltsin era," commented Panfilov. "But Putin killed those first shoots with his boot."

Catherine A. Fitzpatrick is the editor of "RFE/RL (Un)Civil Societies."

By Robert Coalson

The fallout from this month's banking crisis in Russia continues, and the media are not being overlooked in the quest to pin blame. Central Bank Chairman Sergei Ignatev himself has been among those who said that the crisis of confidence was provoked in large part by unscrupulous competition in the banking sector and fueled by stories planted in the press.

On 19 July, Alfa Group Chairman Mikhail Fridman told reporters that Alfa Bank lost about $9 million during the panic, and that shareholders had invested an additional $1 billion in order to keep the bank functioning while jittery depositors rushed to withdraw their funds. "The bank's total losses connected with this problem run to tens of millions of dollars," Fridman said, according to "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 20 July. RBK reported on 20 July that the bank lost 20 percent of its individual-deposit accounts during the three-day run.

Analysts quoted by RBK laid no small part of the blame for Alfa's troubles on the bank's management, particularly on a controversial decision to charge a temporary 10 percent fee on withdrawals. Sector analyst Andrei Serdechnov slammed the bank for "inexcusably harsh actions against individual depositors to stop withdrawals during the crisis despite all its statements that the crisis was not serious."

Fridman, however, predictably blamed the Central Bank -- saying "it would have been possible to act more rigorously and energetically" -- and the mass media. Promising to sue certain media outlets for spreading "rumors about the bank's problems," Fridman even went so far as to say that it would seek from the media an amount equal to what it lost during the panic, including "direct losses, lost opportunities, and reputation risks," "Vremya novostei" reported on 20 July.

Fridman singled out "certain publications" of the Kommersant publishing group as having "provoked the crisis" for "self-interested" reasons. The Kommersant group is owned by self-exiled tycoon and former oligarch Boris Berezovskii. "Nezavisimaya gazeta," which is also owned by Berezovskii, quoted Fridman on 20 July as saying that unscrupulous competitors "were acting exclusively through journalists." The daily also noted that Fridman and Alfa Bank President Petr Avon won a high-profile libel suit against "Versiya" in 2003. "We have quite a lot of experience with lawsuits against unscrupulous media," Fridman was quoted as saying.

"Novye izvestiya," which was once owned by Berezovskii but was taken away from him last year, reported that the Association of Russian Banks (ARB), together with the Central Bank, is conducting an investigation into the recent panic, although the results of the probe might never be made public if it is determined that certain players within the banking sector provoked it intentionally. "For now I cannot answer the question of whether we will make the results of our investigation public," ARB President Garegin Tosunyan told a 27 July press conference.

Nonetheless, the daily cited Alfa Bank officials as repeating the charges that "someone created the crisis for us" and that "it was beneficial for someone to 'tout' Alfa Bank." Alfa Bank Vice President Aleksandr Gafin declined to name names, but said that one need only consider which forces and which political currents are interested in destabilizing the situation in the country. Gafin added that the crisis "was a political order" that "is bigger than the interests of just one or another economic group." According to "Novye izvestiya," Gafin singled out media belonging to Berezovskii as having been the first to include Alfa Bank on lists of supposedly troubled banks.

Whether Berezovskii or his media outlets intentionally provoked the banking crisis and the panic around Alfa Bank in particular or not, there can be little doubt that Fridman would further boost his standing with the Kremlin by launching a so-called business dispute that would result in the former oligarch losing his most visible remaining foothold in Russia.

Political ambitions aside, efforts to blame the media for the crisis and to compel media outlets to reimburse banks for their losses smack of scapegoating. If the public had greater confidence in the government's intentions and the Central Bank's policies, the ability of media reports to spur panic would be sharply curtailed. If the banking and financial sector were more fundamentally transparent, then rumors would have far less power to create such frenzies. Banking-sector players are the ones who benefit most from opacity in the sector, spreading rumors as a means of "unscrupulous competition." If the victims of that competition are able to recoup their losses by suing the media rather than identifying those who planted the rumors, there will obviously be no incentive to boost confidence-building accountability.