The unsolved killings of 17 journalists has had a chilling effect on the work of Russia's press
By Nina Ognianova
Scroll down to readTable of Contents, Preface and Chapter 1 of the Committee to Protect Journalists' 72 page report "Anatomy of Injustice: The Unsolved Killings of Journalists in Russia"
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.
Read the CPJ report HERE. Nina Ognianova joins a panel discussion on 17 September at 1pm hosted by Index on Censorship at the Free Word Centre in London. To reserve a place call 020 7324 2570 or email
Secrecy, indifference, and conflicts mar investigations into journalist deaths. Moscow has a responsibility to uphold the rule of law. Its international partners have an obligation, too.
SIDEBAR: Roadmap for the International Community
3. High Profile, Low Success: Two Cases Fall Apart
Assassins targeted internationally known journalists Paul Klebnikov and Anna Politkovskaya two years apart in Moscow. Despite promises, arrests, and trials, no one has been brought to justice.
SIDEBAR: In Defense of Jury Trials
4. Local Journalists at Risk: Profound Impact, Grave Dangers
Enterprising young reporters tackling sensitive local topics are often isolated and vulnerable to reprisals from powerful forces. Eduard Markevich and Pavel Makeev paid the ultimate price.
SIDEBAR: A Federal System to Investigate, Prosecute
5. No Foul Play: Brushing Aside Suspicious Deaths
Yuri Shchekochikhin and Ivan Safronov were energetic journalists, expert in their fields, fair in their reporting. They died in suspicious circumstances that have not been fully investigated.
SIDEBAR: When Everything Is ‘Top Secret’
6. Investigating the Investigators: When Police Are Suspects
Can President Medvedev halt attacks on the press without moving against corruption in law enforcement agencies? The slayings of Maksim Maksimov and Magomed Yevloyev show how the issues are intertwined.
SIDEBAR: Public Apathy Hampers Press
7. The Robberies: Reaching for a Dubious Motive
Investigators are quick to classify slayings as street crimes rather than examine more sensitive motives. The murders of Natalya Skryl and Vagif Kochetkov were mischaracterizedand then botched.
SIDEBAR: In Their Words
8. The Togliatti Murders: ‘They Can’t Kill Us All’
Valery Ivanov and Aleksei Sidorov were friends and colleagues, a pair of crusading editors out to expose crime and make a splash in Russia' car-making capital. They were murdered 18 months apart.
SIDEBAR: No Place for Justice
9. The Deadly Caucasus: Reporting at Extreme Risk
Journalists have been silenced for covering Chechnya and its neighboring republics, Dagestan and Ingushetia. Opaque investigations into the killings of Vladimir Yatsina, Magomedzagid Varisov, Telman Alishayev, and Anastasiya Baburova have fed deep skepticism.
SIDEBAR: 'Who Needs Your Truth?’
10. A (Limited) Success: Landmark Convictions Won
Guilty verdicts in the killing of Igor Domnikov show that persistence can lead to justice. But critics say the case, successful as it has been, remains far from complete.
SIDEBAR: A Measure of Justice
Appendix I: Excerpts From the Work of Journalists Slain in Russia since 2000
Appendix II: Key Statistics
Video Report: The authors discuss impunity in journalist killings in Russia
This report made possible by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. To request a printed copy of this report, e-mail
Photos, top row: Natalya Skryl (Novoye Vremya), Valery Ivanov (CJES), Igor Domnikov (Novaya Gazeta), Anna Politkovskaya (Novaya Gazeta), Vagif Kochetkov (CJES), Paul Klebnikov, Vladimir Yatsina (CJES), Telman Alishayev (CJES). Photos, second row: Eduard Markevic (CJES), Aleksei Sidorov (CJES), Pavel Makeev (CJES), Yuri Shchekochikhin (CJES), Magomedzagid Varisov (CJES), Anastasiya Baburova (Novaya Gazeta), Maksim Maksimov (CJES), Magomed Yevloyev (CJES), Ivan Safronov (Kommersant). ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Committee to Protect Journalists September 15, 2009
Anatomy of Injustice: The Unsolved Killings of Journalists in Russia
By Kati Marton
It is a sad irony: While the world celebrates the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Russia itself is relapsing to some of its Soviet ways. In fact, for journalists, Russia is a more dangerous place now than it was during the Cold War.
Only Iraq and Algeria outrank Russia on the list of most life-threatening countries for the press. Seventeen journalists have been murdered in Russia since 2000. In only one case have the killers been punished. This is a sorry record for a great and powerful nation that embarked on democratization after more than 70 years of brutal repression.
That is why the Committee to Protect Journalists is releasing an unprecedented report that calls on the international community to help reverse this slide toward lawlessness. Our mission is to protect journalists, and we are less and less able to do so in Russia. Though we continue to appeal to Russian authorities to bring to justice those who murdered our colleagues, we can no longer leave it at that. This report is more than an expression of our outrage. We propose concrete guidelines and present hard facts for restarting investigations into these unsolved murders.
Let us be perfectly plain. Any state that turns a blind eyeor worsetoward the assassination of reporters cannot call itself a democracy. When journalists are threatened, democracy itself is threatened. Along with the rule of law, an independent judiciary, and an autonomous civil society, free media is one of the essential pillars of a healthy society. Remove one, and the whole structure may collapse.
When U.S. democracy was in its earliest days, two and a half centuries ago, one of its champions, Patrick Henry, said, “The liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be, secure, when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them.”
In Russia today, the rulers’ transactions are increasingly concealed from the ruled. Disturbingly, as brave and determined truth-tellers are felled by assassins’ bullets, the Russian people have responded with a collective shrug. The reason for this apathy is evident. The vast majority of Russians get only government-filtered news, so outrage at these murders has been muted. Who in Russia will be left to hold authority accountable if the truth-tellers are written off as expendable?
During the Cold War there were established rules, and reporters knew which lines not to cross, which subjects to avoid. Not so today. The 17 who have been killed in recent years covered a wide range of topics: organized crime, corporate corruption, bribe-taking among public officials, unrest in the Northern Caucasus republics (for, though the war in Chechnya has been pronounced over, in reality, bloodletting has merely relocated to its neighbors). A charade of justice followed each of these killings. Typically, authorities quickly substitute robbery or personal grudges for real motives. At times, the official response would be comic were it not for the tragic outcomes.
In Togliatti, Russia’s Detroit, investigators attributed the murder of Aleksei Sidorov, editor of Tolyattinskoye Obozreniye to a random street brawl. Sidorov, so ran the official story, was stabbed with an ice pick after he refused a stranger’s appeals for vodka. Investigators cast only the most casual glance at the murdered reporter’s notebooks, computer, and tape recorders. In this case and others, police barely interviewed witnesses. Investigators rarely visited the victims’ news organizations. These crimes are attributed to “hooligans,” and the trail suddenly goes cold. Those who actually dispatch the hit men can breathe easy. The same curtain of secrecy that shrouded the KGB now protects its successor, the Federal Security Service.
Of course, truth was in short supply during the Cold War, and those who insisted on challenging the official version of events were often dispatched to long prison terms. My own parents, Endre and Ilona Marton, the last independent media members behind the Iron Curtain, were tried and convicted on fake charges of being CIA agents, for merely doing their jobs as American wire service reporters in Budapest. There was no CPJ then to protest, or to name and shame my parents’ captors and keep the pressure up, the way CPJ did to such powerful effect recently in the case of Roxana Saberi in Iran. As in Roxana’s case, my parents’ long prison sentences were cut short, and they were freed in 1956, after a barrage of articles in The New York Times.
Few journalists have paid a higher price for their courage than those who work for Novaya Gazeta among the most vibrant and independent voices left in the dimming Russian media landscape. Imagine going to work each day passing giant portraits of your newspaper’s three star reportersIgor Domnikov, Yuri Shchekochikhin, and Anna Politkovskayaall murdered. We honored Novaya Gazeta's editor, Dmitry Muratov, with our International Press Freedom Award in 2007. For the sake of Russian society, the international community must do more than heap praise on murdered reporters.
In his 2008 inaugural address, Dmitry Medvedev declared that under his presidency the protection of human rights and freedom would drive “the sense and the substance of all state policy.” In Berlin a month later, he pledged that “all instances related to attempts on the life and health of journalists will be investigated and prosecuted to the end, regardless of when they occurred.”
We at CPJ will continue to remind him of that pledge and of the fact that a great nation with a legitimate claim to leadership on the world stage must uphold the rule of law on behalf of all citizens. We need world leaders, including those in the United States and Europe, to drive home that message.
Three years ago, at a memorial service for Anna Politkovskaya, one of the bravest of the brave, I pledged that we at CPJ would not forget Anna, what she stood for, and what she gave her life for. And so we have not. But Anna’s case remains unsolved. This past February, the three defendants in her murder trial walked free. It is true the evidence presented in court against them was skimpy. Once again, the state had given the masterminds an easy pass. Only the small fry were in the dock.
Even as we at CPJ pressed for a renewed investigation, another of Anna’s colleagues at Novaya Gazeta was gunned down on a Moscow street. Twenty-five-year-old Anastasiya Baburova’s assassination has pushed reporters at Novaya Gazeta to the edge. The paper’s management has asked the government to allow its reporters to carry guns as a condition of doing their jobsanother stain on the face of a nation that the world expected would be much farther along on the road to democracy on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Kati Marton is a board member of the Committee to Protect Journalists. Her seventh book, Enemies of the People My Family’s Journey to America, a Cold War memoir, will be published by Simon and Schuster in October 2009. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Committee to Protect Journalists September 15, 2009
Anatomy of Injustice: The Unsolved Killings of Journalists in Russia
Chapter 1. Summary
The Committee to Protect Journalists prepared this report to highlight the alarming and ongoing problem of deadly violence against critical journalists in Russia and the government’s consistent inability to bring justice in these cases. CPJ’s analysis points to systemic failures that if left unaddressed will further erode free expression and the rule of law in Russia. Vital national and international interests are at stake.
A record of impunity Seventeen journalists have been killed in retaliation for their work since 2000. The victims represent the breadth of Russian journalism: editors, reporters, photographers, columnists, and a publisher. Some had earned international reputations; others were local reporters probing issues important to their communities. They shared one thing: All were engaged in critical reporting that threatened powerful interests in government, business, law enforcement, or criminal groups.
In only one case have the killers been convicted. CPJ research shows Russia to be the world’s third deadliest country for the press and the ninth worst in solving journalist murders. Russia has been a consistently dangerous place throughout the last two decades; CPJ is examining the period 2000-09 because it reflects the record of the current leadership.
This record of impunity in journalism-related killings stands in sharp contrast to Russia’s stated record in solving murders among the general population. Aleksandr Bastrykin, who as head of the Investigative Committee at the Prosecutor General’s Office is one of the country’s top law enforcement officials, has said that the vast majority of murders have been solved in recent years.
Even as this report went to press, two more journalists were slain: Reporter and activist Natalya Estemirova was kidnapped and killed in Chechnya, while Vyacheslav Yaroshenko, editor of the Rostov-on-Don newspaper Korruptsiya i Prestupnost, died after an assault. CPJ is now investigating the circumstances of those killings as well.
Shortcomings at all levels The failure to achieve justice reflects shortcomings at every level: political, investigative, prosecutorial, and judicial.
The Kremlin has set the political tone by marginalizing critical journalists, effectively barring them from state-controlled national television, and obstructing their work through politicized regulations and bureaucratic harassment. Probing journalistsoften shunted to media with limited audiencesare isolated, undervalued, and vulnerable to attack.
CPJ’s analysis shows that the murder investigations have been consistently opaque, often marred by conflicts of interest, and frequently subject to undue influence from external political forces. Time and again, CPJ found, investigators failed to follow up on journalism-related leads, examine work material, or question professional contacts. Important evidence has been concealed at times without clear explanation.
In some instances, prosecutors have brought ill-prepared cases to trial, and in at least one case they brought bogus charges against an innocent man. Judicial officials have made questionable or unexplained decisions, from closing courtrooms to leaving jurors exposed to intimidation. At all levels, authorities have failed to communicate with victims’ families about even the most basic case developments. These secretive practices have deterred accountability, encouraged the manipulation of the justice system, and undermined public trust.
Compelling reasons to change This situation has led to self-censorship in the Russian press, leaving issues of vital importance underreported or entirely uncovered. In-depth, critical journalism is in danger of becoming extinct in one of the world’s most influential countries. If Russia is to pursue a democratic future it cannot allow the levers of power to be unexamined by independent journalists.
At stake in these 17 cases is Russia’s commitment to the rule of law for all citizensincluding even the harshest Kremlin critics. The constitution of the Russian Federation guarantees the right to life and the freedom to exchange ideas; it obligates the government to protect those rights.
President Dmitry Medvedev said he is committed to rooting out corruption, standing up for the rule of law, and getting to the bottom of unsolved journalist murders. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has also said attacks on journalists need to be addressed. Such pledges are important, but they are only the first step in an arduous process that will require strong, ongoing political will.
This is not solely a domestic issue. The international community has a deep and intrinsic interest in upholding the basic human rights to life and free expression. When a powerful nation, an influential member of numerous international organizations, does not protect basic human rights, it erodes those rights for everyone.
The road to justice Fundamental steps can address this record of impunity. The changes need to start with the political tone set by the Kremlin. President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin should condemn all attacks on the press in clear, public, and unequivocal terms. They should halt efforts to marginalize or criminalize critical journalism. And they should hold top law enforcement officials accountable for solving murders and violent crimes against journalists.
Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika and Investigative Committee Chairman Bastrykin should order a thorough re-examination of all 17 of these cases. Unchecked leads should be pursued, wanted suspects should be tracked down, professional motives should be thoroughly examined. Where there are conflicts of interest, cases should be reassigned. Investigators and prosecutors should communicate clearly and regularly with victims’ families. Given Russia’s centralized law enforcement system, Chaika and Bastrykin have the ability and the obligation to hold local subordinates accountable for their actions.
The international community must hold Russian leaders accountable for their record on this issue. World leaders have the ability to scrutinize the record, use political persuasion to effect change, and take substantive action in international legal forums.
All of this will be needed and all of this is possible to change this record of injustice.