Who are the authorities fighting?
26 Sep 2007

The recent developments into investigations of Russian journalists’ murders, the attempts to accuse publicists and writers in extremism and other crimes along with Duma’s legislation activities, prompts the thought that the major task of Russian authorities is to fight against media and writers, rather then criminals.

On 12 September, Kommersant reported that the prosecutor’s office of Moscow Central Administrative District closed the criminal investigation into the March death of Kommersant defense correspondent Ivan Safronov because of ‘an absence of foul play’.

Safronov threw himself out of the staircase window in his apartment building without any obvious reason: he had a successful career and happy family life. He was a respected military correspondent who often covered sensitive issues in the fields of defence, army and space. The prosecutors opened a criminal case on ‘incitement to suicide’, but failed to find either those who may have prompted the journalist to commit suicide, or any personal motives for taking his own life. At the same time, according to Kommersant’s deputy editor, Iliya Bulavinov, investigators totally neglected the possibility of work-related inducement to suicide, and the case was not fully investigated.

On 27 August, the Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika claimed the arrest of 10 suspects into the prominent investigative reporter from Novaya gazeta, Anna Politkovskaya. Four of the suspects have been charged. Chaika also reported that besides the members of a criminal gang, some current and former police and Federal Security Service officers helped organising the murder. The reports brought some hope to the murdered journalists’ families and colleagues, as this was the first more or less effective investigation following around 47 murders of journalists in Russia since 1992, considered work-related.

However, in the two days following Chaika’s report, two former policemen, suspects in Politkovskaya’s murder, were released. Moreover, the prosecutor’s statement on the masterminds of the murder seriously confused the journalist’s colleagues. Novaya gazeta’s Roman Shleinov reported that the Prosecutor General ‘repeated almost word for word a statement President Vladimir Putin made in the immediate aftermath of Politkovskaya’s murder, blaming forces outside Russia for attempting to undermine the current situation in the country.’ For Novaya gazeta’s journalists this was a sign that any further investigation would be politically influenced.

Politicised murders are very hard to investigate, given the high level of corruption in Russian law enforcement agencies. Nevertheless, some serious cases are actually investigated, although the investigations rarely lead to charges.

In June 2004, well-known St Petersburg journalist Maksim Maksimov disappeared. The investigators managed to find and arrest the suspects. Two witnesses provided a full description of Maksimov’s murder, and others added details. The story appeared in local and international media many times. But since the suspects were experienced officers from the corruption division of Internal Affairs Ministry, the prosecutors had trouble bringing them to justice. The formal reason for this is the fact that journalist’s body was never found. Meanwhile, unofficial sources says, the suspected officers boast that they have high-ranked patrons who will soon help them to get free.

Yet, Manana Aslamazyan, the head of the Educated Media Foundation, the organisation which provided professional training for Russian journalists, after mistakenly violating the administrative code, was branded a criminal right away. The foundation was shut down. In Nizhny Novgorod police confiscated all Novaya Gazeta’s computers ‘to check for unlicensed software’; Krasnodar prosecutors found ‘signs of extremism’ in the books of respected political scientist Andrey Piontkovsky; Moscow prosecutors threatened the lawyer and writer Pavel Astakhov with a libel case, because Astakhov had described corrupt Russian policemen in his novel. The well-known historian and journalist Vladimir Pribylovsky is suspected of extremism. The celebrated satirist Victor Shenderovich is suspected of inciting ethnic and national hatred. When someone shot at Moscow investigative reporter Andrey Kalitin, police refused to open a criminal case based on murder attempt, insisting that this was just a case of hooliganism.

The state Duma seems to support these developments. The parliament’s lower chamber is ready to consider a new bill that bans mentioning the nationality and religion of crimes and their victims. Rather then beating nationalism and extremism, this law will obviously hamper spreading the information on hate crimes and nationalism in Russia. The previous Duma’s anti-extremism amendments gave the law enforcement agencies more opportunities to silence journalists and suspend media.

Investigating contract-style murders, disappearances, and motiveless suicides, is certainly much more difficult then bringing libel cases and catching journalists and educators red-handed for rules violations. Hopefully, the new government, which is meant to fight corruption, and the next parliament, will at least change the priorities in the work of law enforcement agencies. Otherwise, when it comes to the journalists and writers, this work looks more like witch-hunting than fighting with criminals.

Padraig Reidy

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