Russia: getting away with murder
The unsolved killings of 17 journalists has had a chilling effect on the work of Russia's press, writes Nina Ognianova
16 Sep 09

ninaoThe unsolved killings of 17 journalists has had a chilling effect on the work of Russia’s press, writes Nina Ognianova

In the past decade alone, at least 17 journalists in Russia have been murdered. Those killed represent the breadth of Russian journalism –– editors, reporters, photographers, columnists, cameramen and a publisher. They come from large cities and small towns across Russia; some, like Novaya gazeta journalist Anna Politkovskaya and Forbes Russia editor Paul Klebnikov, had earned international acclaim, while others had covered issues significant only to their communities. They all engaged in critical reporting that upset powerful interests — whether in government, business, law enforcement or organised crime.

Shockingly, in only one case have the killers been convicted. Why are these murders going unsolved? The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has closely examined these 17 murders, committed under the current Russian leadership, and found that in all cases the lack of transparency and accountability, susceptibility to external pressures, conflicts of interest, or insufficient political will have marred official investigations.

CPJ’s report, Anatomy of Injustice, published this week in Moscow and London, documents the government’s inability to solve the crimes and reflects shortcomings at investigative, prosecutorial and judicial levels.

The report shows that, time and again, investigators have failed to sufficiently probe the victims’ journalism as a possible murder motive, examine their publications and reporters’ notes, question relevant witnesses, and track down potential suspects. At times, seemingly important evidence has been lost or concealed. In a few cases, prosecutors brought untenable cases to trial, and at least in one case they brought bogus charges against an innocent man. At all levels, Authorities have failed to communicate with families about even the most basic developments in the cases of their loved ones. Failure to solve the killings has undermined the public trust in Russia’s justice system and its capacity to protect its citizens.

In short, someone is getting away with murdering journalists in Russia, and this record of impunity has had a chilling effect on the press corps. Russian journalists have shunned sensitive subjects such as corruption, human rights abuses, official wrongdoing and organised crime. The domestic public and international community have been kept in the dark about relevant issues, which has led to the closing of Russia’s society in recent years — a development that has hurt the country’s aspirations to be perceived as a world leader and a reliable international partner.

Russia’s record of impunity undermines a public pledge made by President Dmitry Medvedev in 2008 that attacks on journalists will be solved: “All instances related to the attempts on the life and health of journalists in our country will be investigated and prosecuted to the end, regardless of when they occurred,” he told a gathering of politicians and business leaders in Berlin. A year earlier, the then President Vladimir Putin made a similar pledge to protect Russia’s press corps, but such promises are undermined in light of these unsolved killings.

Medvedev and Putin, as Russia’s top leaders, share a moral responsibility for these cases. They must condemn — unconditionally and on the record — all violent crimes against the press and demand concrete results from investigating agencies. Russia’s legal authorities should order the thorough re-examination of all the unsolved journalist murder cases. International leaders should hold their Russian counterparts accountable, use diplomacy to effect change, and, if needed, take action in international legal forums.

There are some reasons for hope: in July, Russian investigating authorities committed themselves to restarting the failed inquiry into the Klebnikov murder. For the first time they agreed to accept assistance from their US counterparts in the case. Russia’s supreme court has also ordered the case of three suspected accomplices in the murder of Politkovskaya to be returned to prosecutors for further investigation. Russian authorities should build on this good start and bring to justice Politkovskaya’s and Klebnikov’s killers, as well as the killers of the other journalists slain for their work since 2000.

When an influential country — a member of international organisations premised on upholding universal human rights, including the rights to life and freedom of expression — fails to protect those rights at home, it undermines them for everyone.

On Thursday 17 September Index on Censorship hosts the launch of a major report by Committee to Protect Journalists on impunity and the media in Russia. Please join us for a lunchtime panel discussion with Nina Ognianova, author of the report, Manana Aslamazyan, executive director, Internews Europe and Richard Sambrook, director, BBC global news and vice president International News Safety Institute. The discussion is chaired by Jo Glanville, editor, Index on Censorship.

1pm, Thursday 17 September

Free Word Centre
60 Farringdon Road
London EC1R 3GA

To reserve a place please email [email protected] or call 020 7324 2522

This article was originally published in the Guardian