Killing the Messenger  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   November 1995

Killing the Messenger   

Organized crime figures are killing journalists in Russia and elsewhere in the former Soviet empire, making investigative reporting a dangerous occupation.

By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi (sricchia@iupui.edu) is an AJR senior contributing writer.     

Related reading:
   » Standing Up to Death Threats

Perestroika was sweeping Russia in 1987 when journalist Yevgenia Albats accepted an assignment to investigate crimes of the dreaded KGB. One afternoon the political analyst, then with the Moscow News, stood in front of an apartment building on Gorky Street, gearing up for an ambush interview.

She slipped silently through the marble foyer – reminiscent of the Stalin era, she noted to herself – and took an elevator to the third floor in search of apartment No. 88. A few moments later, the reporter confronted Alexander Khvat, who had built a career as a KGB investigator.

"He looked like a nice grandfather," Albats recalled of the stooped 88 year old. "But then I realized he was a grandfather with blood on his hands." When Albats began sifting through the KGB archives, Khvat's name continued to catch her attention. He had participated in the Stalin purges, overseeing the torture of Soviet citizens, one of them a renowned geneticist charged with espionage who eventually starved to death in prison.

"Lackeys of Khvat's type could find no other way to claim their 'birthright' than through brutality and murder," Albats would later write.

A chilling paper trail from the KGB's secret files would lead her to other of Stalin's most feared inquisitors. One of them, Vladimir Boyarsky, was linked to 117 deaths, including four that occurred during torture sessions.

Albats would inform her readers that Boyarksy, described by victims as a "monster and a murderer," lived comfortably in the heart of Moscow and at the time was a well-respected professor and a popular guest in the homes of fashionable intelligentsia.

For Albats, investigations published in 1988 targeting the Communist secret police force also would lead to death threats delivered by anonymous letters or hissing voices on the telephone. She was followed; her phone tapped. The reporter once warned colleagues that if she died mysteriously, in an automobile crash, for instance, they should look beyond for the real killers. "I am a very good driver," Albats told them.

In a shrug-it-off tone, Albats notes that in Russia, "if you do journalism that deals with certain issues, you can easily get killed." Danger, she says, is accepted as part of the profession by investigative reporters in the former Soviet Union.

Investigative reporting is indeed becoming an increasingly dangerous activity in Russia and other parts of the former Soviet empire and areas of Central/Eastern Europe, or the CEE. The record number of journalists killed in this region over the past three years underscores a stark reality: To pry into the lethal underworld of organized crime and government corruption is to risk playing lead role in a nightmare.

Just as in the old days, when grim-faced political police conducted middle-of-the-night raids and hauled off journalists to terrible places, this new brand of terror is meant to stifle curiosity and deter would-be whistleblowers. Only this time, Communist Party bosses aren't issuing the orders. Criminal organizations, often made up of former KGB agents, former Communist Party officials and black marketeers with links to the mob, are instead. It is, in fact, a kind of post-Cold War gangsterism.

Since the Soviet empire shattered, the KGB has changed its name seven times and has infiltrated Russia's emerging free market economy. Russian reporters have documented that funds from the KGB and other "official" organizations have been used to start nearly 80 percent of the country's new banks, stock markets and companies. No wonder journalists investigating shady business deals find themselves at risk.

Earlier this year, a Heritage Foundation report noted that "a tidal wave of crime and corruption is sweeping Eurasia, threatening to bury the nascent and fragile democratic institutions in Russia and other countries in the region." According to the report, Russia alone is under attack from over 5,000 gangs, 300 mob bosses and 150 illegal organizations with international ties. Approximately 40,000 businesses in the former Soviet state are controlled by organized crime.

Indeed, many of the former Iron Curtain countries of Europe are plagued by outlaw groups created by members of the old Communist Party establishment, onetime security police and gangs with newfound power. Shod Muladjanov, editor of Moscovskaya Pravda, puts it this way: "We [journalists] are in a fight against the gangs. They have a hand on us wherever they are, in the Kremlin, in the government, in the television [industry]. We are being shot or bought off so that we stop being an obstacle to a new dictatorship. And no law enforcement body in the country protects our rights."

Reports by media monitors, such as the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), provide evidence of targeting of the media by death squads and hit men hired by corrupt entrepreneurs and state officials in the CEE region. The committee has deemed 1994 the bloodiest "pressticidal" year on record, with 72 journalists confirmed murdered in 20 countries.

"Russia's press – the country's only true democratic institution – is under siege," wrote Leonid Zagalsky in a recent CPJ report.

Illegal goods controlled by Mafia-like organizations flowing from East to West run the gamut from munitions and drugs to prostitution and plutonium. A story by Agence France-Presse placed the Russian Mafia's bank holdings in foreign countries at an estimated $30 billion.

Tajikistan, a former Soviet republic bordering China, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, is one of the bloodiest territories for journalists in the region. According to the CPJ, at least 27 Tajik reporters and editors have been killed since May 1992 in what appear to be deliberate political assassinations carried out by paramilitary forces loyal to the current regime. There have been no official investigations into these murders.

Tajikistan is best known for the bloody civil war ignited among regional groups after the breakup of the Soviet Union and a vicious brand of lawlessness aimed at any faction that interferes with criminal activity or raises the issue of human rights violations.

Much of the blame has been placed on the People's Front, organized in 1992 by a notorious criminal who spent two decades in prison for murder and robbery. Many members of the organization have been integrated into the official state security forces, permitting them to carry out terrorism similar to that of the former KGB.

The CPJ report also noted "official complicity" in the deaths of four staffers at the pro-Islamic, Tajik-language newspaper Navidi Vakhsh killed between June and September 1993. Tajik journalists have been arrested and charged with treason merely for accurately reporting civil disorder and human rights violations, particularly against the Islamic population. The CPJ report noted that "like much of the rest of Central Asia, Tajikistan is back-sliding into a venal combination of Soviet-style authoritarianism and gangsterism."

The CPJ published a special report noting that "over the past three years, Tajikistan has been the scene of some of the most brutal yet least noticed campaigns against press freedom in the world... Most Tajik journalists are now in hiding or in exile abroad."

The media assassinations were higher profile in Russia, where 10,000 mourners attended a memorial for Dimitri Kholodov, one of the country's top investigative reporters and a military correspondent. The 27-year-old journalist was blown up in the newsroomsof the daily Moskovsky Komsomolete, on October 17, 1994, by a booby-trapped briefcase handed him by a source during a meeting at a Moscow train station.

Kholodov believed he was carrying documents that would help prove connections between the Russian military and the sale of nuclear materials and guns in Germany. The reporter had already linked a high-ranking Russian general to the sale of tanks and other heavy weapons that ended up on the battlefields of Bosnia. Kholodov was slated to testify about his findings before the Russian parliament.

It appeared that the security police were hot on Kholodov's trail the day of his death. Pavel Guzev, an editor for Moskovsky Komsomolete, said that as the reporter lay bleeding to death on the floor, government agents came in to confiscate his files. "They said they were from the Federal Counterintelligence Service [an agency that replaced the KGB]. We were busy trying to save Dimitri, who was bleeding profusely, and they were busy taking his documents. We don't know where they are or how to get them back," Guzev later told a reporter from the Dallas Morning News.

At a Freedom Forum "Media vs. the Mafia" workshop, Virginijus Gaivenis, an editor from Respublika, the first independent newspaper in Lithuania, gave a detailed account of how his most tenacious crime reporter was shot in the head at point-blank range by two masked gunmen near his home in October 1993.

At the time, it appeared that Vitas Lingys, 33, was close to proving a link between Russian emigrés in New York and the Lithuanian mob, known for running drugs and guns, and money laundering schemes. Police later confirmed the murder was carried out by hired assassins from the "Vilnius Brigade," supported by members of the former KGB.

Shortly after the killing, a Respublika editor told a Reuters reporter: "Those who pulled the trigger clearly knew they were killing the key crime reporter at the newspaper. It was a warning to other journalists."

In this case, arrests were made. One of the accused confessed and turned state's evidence. The other was sentenced to death but legal maneuvering has delayed the execution.

Gaivenis, who has been beaten after publishing stories about the local Mafia, noted that after Lingys' death, journalists at Respublika debated whether to end their investigations. "But we understood that if we stopped, the criminal elements would only grow stronger. So the day after the murder, we held a press conference at a TV studio. We showed our faces because we understood that we had to. Then we took some measures to protect ourselves."

Security guards were brought in and police provided reporters and editors with special training on how to know when they were being followed. "After publishing a scandal or investigative stories, I normally try to send my family out of Vilnius," Gaivenis notes. "I don't care about myself but I really worry about my family."

Reporters and editors attempting to cover this unfolding international drama face special problems, often debating whether to carry guns or hire bodyguards. Editors of Lithuania's Respublika admit that many of the reporters now keep guns close at hand.~Some newspapers run stories on organized crime without bylines and send reporters into hiding immediately after publication.

During the Freedom Forum workshop, Peter Vajda, an editor for a Budapest daily, said his newspaper protects journalists by withholding bylines on stories involving organized crime or violent right-wing factions. Martin Dugas, who writes extensively about the underworld for a Slovakian weekly, suggested joint publication of stories likely to place the authors at risk.

One Moscow correspondent urged the creation of international investigative reporting teams – five to 10 crack reporters coordinating efforts to expose criminal elements that cross-pollinate from East to West. The stories would run simultaneously on both sides of the ocean.

In most of the CEE countries, there is little solid framework guaranteeing freedom of the press. Generally, rhetoric, some of it with the ring of America's First Amendment, is worked into new national constitutions, then quickly forgotten, leaving journaØists with few real safeguards. The Russian Journalists' Union recently issued a statement condemning lawlessness against the press and denouncing government bureaucrats as the "biggest enemies" of the profession.

In a report earlier this year, the International Press Institute (IPI) emphasized "the rise of gangs of individuals in countries whose constitutions specifically guarantee press freedom and freedom of expression." The IPI warned that these criminal elements were prepared to use "extreme violence" to silence critics.

Russian TV star Vladislav Listyev is another who chose not to cave in to threats. Media reports after his execution in the stairwell of his central Moscow apartment on March 1 refer to Listyev, 38, as the country's best-loved television personality who unabashedly modeled himself after CNN's Larry King, right down to his suspenders and chatty talk show.

An Associated Press story on the funeral noted that "everyone from cosmonauts to manual laborers turned out to mourn the death of a man some call 'the most beloved, popular person in the country.' " A Russian journalist interviewed by the AP compared the shock of Listyev's assassination to that in the United States when President Kennedy was killed.

Robbery was not the motive. The killers left without taking the reported $1,500 and 1 million rubles – the equivalent of around $230 – found in his wallet. Maybe it was his investigations of contract killings ordered by the mob that sparked the attack against the creator of prime time talk shows and game shows in Russia. (Listyev designed the Russian version of "Wheel of Fortune" and had been labeled a cross between King and Edward R. Murrow.)

More likely, Listyev was targeted because of his appointment as director of Russian Public Television, a new channel that was slated to take over the state-owned broadcasting service. Listyev's plans for reform angered powerful business brokers who stood to lose millions in advertising revenue. The head of the Russian Journalists' Union stated that Listyev's murder was the result of "a struggle among political parties and financial groups for power and money." Some believe Listyev may have been murdered because he resisted a corrupt advertising cartel.

Before Listyev was named director of Channel 1, which drew up to 200 million viewers, Mafia-controlled firms bought up all the station's advertising time and doled it out to smaller agencies at vastly inflated prices. Under Listyev, all advertising sales were to be temporarily suspended while strict regulations were devised to make sure the station received its fair share of ad revenue. The crooked middlemen stood to lose billions of rubles under the new policy.

Eduard Sogolayev, another pioneer in post-Soviet broadcasting, told reporters, "Vladislav wanted to purge all the filth that is sticking to this channel, and he was punished for that."

At 7 p.m. on March 2, the day after his death, Listyev received a tribute once reserved only for Kremlin leaders. For two hours, television screens across the nation were blank except for a picture of Listyev. At the end of one TV report on the murder, the newscaster soberly asked: "Who will be next?"

Listyev was among the most famous journalists to be killed in Russia, but the roster of dead includes, among others:

Yuri Soltis, a crime reporter for Interfax News Agency, found dead on June 12, 1994, in a train station outside of Moscow. Soltis was so badly beaten that it took police three days to identify him. Soltis' colleagues told the CPJ that his murder was linked to his investigations of Russia's criminal underworld.

Sergei Dubov, one of the most successful publishers in Russia, killed February 1, 1994, as he left his Moscow home for a morning jog. Dubov, owner of the weekly magazine New Times, was shot in the head by an assailant standing in a telephone booth. Reports in the Russian media noted that Dubov had received death threats from gangsters who were demanding a share of his profits.

Vyacheslav Rudnev, a freelance reporter, found with a fractured skull in his apartment in the town of Kaluga, February 13, 1995. He died four days later. Rudnev was known for his stories on corruption and the criminal underworld. Local police labeled Rudnev's death an accident.

During a March CNN special titled "Wild, Wild East, Battle for Russia," Moscow Bureau Chief Eileen O'Conner informed viewers that crime has replaced government oppression as the main source of fear for the majority of Russians. The same could be said for other CEE countries. Last year, a prominent editor in Warsaw was beaten after publishing a story on car smuggling. The editor of an Albanian opposition newspaper was attacked by thugs and sued for libel over a story he wrote accusing the government of ties to a Mafia gang.

"The message to the journalist is clear: You will be safer if you stay away from political secrets and government bureaucrats' dirty deals," wrote Leonid Zagalsky in the Committee to Protect Journalists Quarterly.

Avner Gidron, research director for the CPJ, expects the attacks to continue and possibly worsen. "We feel the Russian press still remains a strong democratic institution, but there has been no progress in the investigations of these deaths. The government still hasn't prosecuted anyone for Listyev or lesser known ones," Gidron says. "It sends a message that you can attack journalists with impunity, without being brought to justice."

There are no acceptable excuses for the systematic intimidation and murder of journalists anywhere, but a look at the current social and political realities shed light on the occurrences in this chaotic region.

Among key factors: There are few places where the media have undergone more lightning changes than in the former Soviet Union and other CEE countries since the 1989 crumbling of the Berlin Wall. (CEE countries include, among others, Albania, Hungary, Roòania, Bulgaria, the Baltics and the former Yugoslavia.) An industry that once served mostly as a government mouthpiece delivering daily doses of pabulum to the masses, the Russian media now has a free hand to go on the investigative attack.

But in many instances, the repressive political regimes that used to control the media have been replaced by repressive gangster organizations, often spin-offs of brutal police security units such as the KGB. In Bulgaria, extortion rings are run by ex-athletes, mostly wrestlers, who wield baseball bats to keep narcotics traffic, smuggling, counterfeiting and prostitution under their control.

Veteran crime reporter Violina Hristova, with Bulgaria's Standart News, traced the origin of the "wrestlers' Mafia" to changes in the political system. "Many of these wrestlers were former members of government security forces," Hristova noted during the Freedom Forum's workshop on the media and the Mafia.

In many CEE countries, the tentacles of organized crime reach into major hotels, banking chains, advertising agencies and seats of political power. In an article for the Journal of International Affairs, researcher Louise Shelley noted that many of the world's major crime groups specialize in gambling or prostitution rings, for example, but post-Soviet crime runs a wide range, including large-scale penetration of the newly privatized economy.

Shelley explained that organized crime groups exploit the economy by investing illicit profits in new capital ventures, establishing accounts in banks that are loosely regulated and do not question the source of badly needed funds, and utilizing new trade routes for moving illicit goods. She cited research by the Russian Academy of Sciences Analytical Center indicating that 55 percent of joint-stock companies and 80 percent of voting shares were acquired by criminal capital. Journalists have also proved that this spiraling crime wave has strong transnational links, including to the underworld in the United States.

Shelley warns that transnational organized crime tends to undermine political structure and the social order in countries where it operates. "Through the intimidation and assassination of journalists..it limits freedom of the press and individual expression," Shelley wrote.

Another key factor in the violence: The legal systems in these new nation-states are in transition, struggling to convert decades of strict state control into emerging free market economies. The first priorities generally are regulation of currency, banking and exports. Few of these countries have justice systems in place capable of dealing with highly organized crime networks.

"The bottom line, you have to have law and order that protects journalists and everyone else," says Dana Bullen, executive director of the World Press Freedom Committee. "That's what seems to be lacking here."

Viktoria Tribolskaya-Mitlyng, international program director for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists who immigrated to the United States from the Ukraine 15 years ago, says she is surprised more journalists in the former Soviet Union haven't been killed. "There is no legal system to protect people from each other," she says. "Killing someone is a normal way to settle disputes. It's like a wild frontier.

"These journalists feel somewhat cornered these days. Psychological factors keep some of them from poking around further. If you want the bottom line – yes, they are afraid for their lives."

Outrage and organized protest by Western journalists and media organizations could motivate authorities to take stronger action when journalists are targeted, Tribolskaya-Mitlyng believes. "The more attention you draw to these murders, the more likely something will be done, even in Russia," she says.

So, given the dangers, what motivates Yevgenia Albats and other intrepid journalists who refuse to bow to intimidation and harassment? "There is only one way to protect yourself. You just have to keep going – keep writing and reporting. If you start to be afraid, then you're dead," says Albats, who now writes for the Moscow-based daily Izvestia.

"Why am I still alive?" she asks. "I don't know what to tell you. Probably I'm just lucky." l

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