AJR  Features
From AJR,   February/March 2007

Iron Curtain Redux   

The assassination of a prominent investigative reporter underscores the increasingly repressive climate for journalists in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

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

Related reading:
   » A Frightening Ordeal

When the editor answers her cell phone, she assumes that government spooks may be monitoring the conversation. She never ventures out alone after dark for fear of shadowy figures that make a career of killing. Oksana Chelysheva shrugs off the cloak-and-dagger lifestyle as a hazard of the trade in Russia. "We do have to spend much of our time on self-defense," she said during a telephone interview from her apartment in the Volga River city of Nizhny Novgorod in Russia's heartland.

Over the past six years, journalists in Russia have been poisoned, bludgeoned with axes, shot in the head at point-blank range and pummeled with baseball bats and hammers. Some have ended up in prison doing hard labor or forced into exile. Others, like Chelysheva, go about their work every day knowing they could be targets.

Chelysheva, the head of the Russian-Chechen Information Agency, a group that produces reports on the conflict in Chechnya, has plenty of reason to worry. During the last two years, "death leaflets," as she calls them, labeling her a terrorist sympathizer and whore have been scattered around town and stuffed into mailboxes in her apartment building. Her address appeared at the bottom with a cryptic message: "She is shameful and contemptible! We are ready to fight her." A smear campaign by local media loyal to the government has linked her agency to Chechen terrorism, warning that its activities are dangerous to the citizens of Nizhny Novgorod.

Chelysheva has drawn scorn for reporting on human rights violations in Chechnya, a region in the northern Caucasus where the Russian military and its Chechen allies are battling hardcore separatist rebels. The topic is strictly off-limits for media under the direct control or heavy influence of the Kremlin, which makes up a major chunk of the information system during these dark days in the former Soviet Union.

Chelysheva anguishes over the impact of the death threats on her 13-year-old daughter. "She cries and worries that what happened to Anna could happen to me," Chelysheva says, referring to her friend Anna Politkovskaya, an acclaimed investigative reporter who was gunned down in her Moscow apartment building on October 7 as she returned from grocery shopping.

Politkovskaya was about to file a scathing report on torture and kidnappings in Chechnya, with eyewitness accounts and photographs of victims, at the time she was shot in the heart and head by an assailant who nonchalantly dropped the gun and disappeared onto a busy street. Her editor at Novaya Gazeta, one of the few independent newspapers of any importance left in Russia, was planning the package for October 9. Instead, the 48-year-old mother of two became part of a gruesome trend.

Politkovskaya was the 13th journalist to die in an execution-style killing since Russian President Vladimir Putin took office in 2000 and began clamping down on media freedoms. So far, no one is behind bars for any of those crimes. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists reports that 43 media professionals have been murdered for their work over the past 15 years, making Russia the third most lethal country in the world for journalists, behind Iraq and Algeria. Most of those cases remain unsolved and have received scant coverage in the international press.

The attacks come from all directions. The order to kill might be given by a local Mafia don or the ruler of a provincial fiefdom upset over a reporter's probing into corporate crime. A Kremlin official miffed over stories on the bloodletting in Chechnya might put out the word to hire a hit man. The bottom line: Gangland assassins appear to operate with impunity in Russia.

This time, the masterminds behind the assassination miscalculated. Along with silencing a bothersome reporter, they brought instant worldwide attention to Politkovskaya's reporting on torture, murder and attacks against civilians in Chechnya and other parts of the conflict-plagued North Caucasus. Suddenly, there was a rash of stories about the Kremlin's crackdown on civil liberties in Russia and the retreat from democratic reform.

A Newsday editorial depicted the murder as the latest sign that Russia is heading back toward "authoritarian rule and intolerant nationalism." Putin was singled out as the chief architect behind the repression and fear.

A three-part series in the Los Angeles Times, launched the day after Politkovskaya's death, portrayed Russia as a decaying nation succumbing to a broken healthcare system, disease and despair. Russians are dying in record numbers from AIDS and other maladies, suicide and substance abuse, reported correspondent Kim Murphy, whose assessment of the media situation is no less dismal.

"Putin has pretty much destroyed the free media of Russia," Murphy, who spent three years covering Russia before being reassigned to London in July, said in an interview. "When you go out to the regions, you always hear horror stories about local journalists being harassed... They get arrested, have drugs and guns planted in their homes, get beaten up and have criminal libel laws used against them. Then their newspapers go bankrupt to pay for their defense."

In an October 24 story, Chicago Tribune reporter Alex Rodriguez documented the reign of terror against journalists, highlighting the vicious attack on media executive Dmitry Suryaninov, beaten to a bloody pulp with baseball bats last year near his home in the Samara region of southern Russia, an area notorious for organized crime and contract-style killings. Suryaninov said he believed he was attacked because of a series of articles on the head of the SOK Group, a leading auto manufacturer, according to CPJ.

The newspaper executive survived, but no one has been brought to justice for attempted murder. "Few in Russia's journalism community," Rodriguez wrote, "believe Politkovskaya's case will turn out any differently."

Recent events in Russia have left some with a chilling sense of déjà vu.

Alex Lupis, a former CPJ program coordinator now on a fellowship at the Russian Union of Journalists in Moscow, sees the current harassment of the media very much in line with the Soviet experience under the KGB. "Any journalist doing serious investigative work is extremely concerned about [Federal Security Service] surveillance and eavesdropping, which is considered to be widespread," Lupis wrote in an e-mail interview. "The KGB and FSB were never reformed and vetted, so the exact same system remains in place and completely unaccountable to anyone but the president himself."

Nina Ognianova, who replaced Lupis as CPJ's program coordinator for Europe and Central Asia, is cautious when she contacts Russian journalists. "Whenever I speak with Oksana [Chelysheva] on the phone, I always ask, 'Is it OK to talk about this now?' Their phone conversations are recorded to use against them; their e-mail messages are screened. It's very bizarre. It's literally reminiscent of Stalin's era," Ognianova says. Russian journalists know well the topics that are verboten — organized crime, government corruption and the conflict in Chechnya. All 13 who died at the hands of hired killers since 2000 were deeply embroiled in reporting on one of those areas.

In July 2005, CPJ invited relatives of the slain journalists to Moscow to discuss the status of the investigations. There was no good news. Families told of authorities throwing up smoke screens of omission, obstruction and secrecy, forcing them to beg for the most basic information about how the cases were proceeding.

In the death of business reporter Natalya Skryl, 29, investigators failed to follow up on a tip that, on the night she was killed, she planned to meet a source who had promised to provide her with confidential information about a power struggle over control of a local metallurgical plant. CPJ reported that Skryl was walking home from a bus stop late on March 8, 2002, in the port town of Taganrog, when an assailant struck from behind with a blunt object. She died of head injuries the next day, "her body so disfigured that her father did not recognize her," according to CPJ. Skryl worked for a newspaper, Nashe Vremya, in the city of Rostov-on-Don in southwestern Russia.

At first, police ruled out robbery since the victim's gold jewelry and a large sum of cash were left untouched. Four months later, authorities announced that theft was the motive and that the crime had nothing to do with Skryl's role as a reporter. By September, the case was closed due to a lack of suspects.

That, says Ognianova, is typical. "The prosecutors or investigators often disregard the main evidence and often don't interview key witnesses," she says. "It's an overall pattern of delays, lack of communication, an unwillingness to investigate thoroughly."

Investigators also flip-flopped on the October 9, 2003, stabbing death of Aleksei Sidorov, editor in chief of an independent daily in the town of Tolyatti in the Samara region. Sidorov took over as editor after his boss, Valery Ivanov, 32, was shot in the head 18 months earlier.

In his October story, the Tribune's Rodriguez wrote about the two men and their commitment to investigative reporting. "The paper quickly developed a reputation as a thorn in the side of Tolyatti's most notorious crime bosses, men with nicknames like 'the Orphan' and 'Suleiman the Chechen.' The paper probed gangland violence waged over Russia's largest carmaker, AvtoVAZ, and exposed Tolyatti crime groups' infiltration into local businesses and politics," reported Rodriguez.

Sidorov was walking home at night when two men stabbed him in the chest. He staggered to his apartment and died in his wife's arms. At the time, government officials said they believed that Sidorov had been killed in retaliation for his work. A week later, they offered a different motive. A local Interior Ministry official noted that Sidorov refused to give a stranger a sip of vodka he supposedly had been drinking in a bar, an argument ensued and he was stabbed. Case closed.

It made headlines in the United States when American-born Paul Klebnikov, the editor of Forbes Russia, was shot to death on a Moscow street near the magazine's office on July 9, 2004.

According to the New York Times, Klebnikov was hit with four bullets, loaded into an ambulance without an oxygen bottle and taken to a hospital where the elevator summoned to deliver him to surgery stalled. Klebnikov, the descendant of Russian émigrés who fled the Bolshevik revolution, made the nexus of business, crime, power and wealth a main focus of his magazine. In a highly controversial move in May 2004, he published a list of Russia's 100 wealthiest businesspeople, including 36 billionaires. That, some suspect, might have triggered the attack.

On May 5, 2006, a jury acquitted two suspects accused of being the hit men in Klebnikov's murder. In November, the Russian Supreme Court overturned the acquittal and ordered a new trial. CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon hailed the decision as "an important first step in the battle against impunity for journalists murdered in Russia."

While local journalists bear the brunt of the intimidation, foreign correspondents find themselves struggling to stay in the good graces of government powerbrokers who dole out visas and press credentials, a lifeline for those reporting in the region.

ABC News has felt the sting of the Kremlin's displeasure. On July 28, 2005, "Nightline" aired an interview with Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev despite the Russian government's protests and its appeal to the U.S. government to pressure ABC to kill the piece. A few days later, a Kremlin official informed ABC's Moscow bureau chief that the network's accreditation would not be renewed. The office could remain open and the Russian staff could stay, but there would be no reporting.

Since then, Marcus Wilford, who is in charge of ABC's bureaus in Europe, Africa and the Middle East, has made two trips to Moscow and one to St. Petersburg to mend fences. "It's one of the most difficult things that we've encountered. It's a completely unique situation to be a major international news organization punished for reporting and then made to go cap in hand to get your accreditation back," Wilford says. "What they objected to in their terms was giving a platform to terrorists."

Wilford has been told that ABC's accreditation is under review, and he is hopeful the problem will soon be resolved. "I am encouraged by what I have heard from the Kremlin," says Wilford. "Whether it actually happens or not remains to be seen."

For the most part, organizations with a constant reporting presence in Russia have not had serious problems with accreditation, although the threat of being scolded for so-called "black coverage" or being shut down is omnipresent. Journalists attempting to gain entry for short assignments face far more difficulty.

In July, Russian officials cited a national security law as the reason for refusing an entry visa to British journalist Thomas de Waal. He believes his extensive reporting on Chechnya over the years--some of it contradicting the Russian version of event--has landed him on the blacklist. L.A. Times correspondent Kim Murphy was unsuccessful in obtaining a temporary visa for a photographer to work on the Russia series with her. When she asked authorities in Moscow for an explanation, they responded, "We don't have to tell you why."

When Russian authorities turned down her request for an entry visa earlier this year, freelance journalist Kelly McEvers took a different path to gain access to the remote republic of Dagestan and paid dearly for it. (See "A Frightening Ordeal," right). In November, the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders protested the arrest of ORF (Austrian Public Channel) correspondent Susanne Scholl and her camera crew in Chechnya. All of the footage they shot was seized before they were released a few hours later. Scholl was in Chechnya to work on a documentary about Anna Politkovskaya.

On July 7, Washington Post Moscow Bureau Chief Peter Finn reported that Russian officials had ordered more than 60 radio stations to stop broadcasting reports by Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

In his story, Finn wrote, "Control of the mass media, particularly news and debate on the national television channels, is a critical part of the Kremlin's management of political discourse in advance of parliamentary elections in 2007 and presidential elections in 2008." Throughout most of the country, media outlets are controlled by local officials, most of them loyal to the Kremlin. Still, says Finn, Putin supporters will insist that Russia has a vibrant, independent press.

"If Putin says there are 80,000 independent, privately owned publications in Russia, that's true if you include magazines like Cosmopolitan or those for fishing, sports and automobiles. But how vibrant is the press that covers politics? It is very constrained," says Finn, who has reported on Russia for two-and-a-half years. "More and more media outlets are politically falling under the control of Putin or those loyal to the government. In the regions, publishers can be pressured by many different means."

Examples of editors forced out of business are not hard to find.

Alexander Yahontov recalls a heyday in 1997 when his publication Novaya Gazeta-Mir Ludei (The New Newspaper-World of People) in the town of Penza published 16 pages every Wednesday. The 15-member staff prided itself on being a watchdog, scrutinizing the actions of the governor, the police and the courts. When authorities ignored their grievances, members of the public often turned to the paper as a last resort.

Then the government-controlled media went on the attack, labeling the newspaper unpatriotic and an enemy of the state. On New Year's Eve 2000, the staff was ordered to vacate its government-rented offices within three days. Ad revenue fell by two-thirds as officials pressured local businesses to stay out of the paper. The government even launched a newspaper with a similar name. Yahontov's paper's circulation, once 23,000, plummeted to 4,000.

"By the time we closed the newspaper in August 2005, we were selling no ads at all," Yahontov wrote in an e-mail interview. He says he's now jobless. In August, he found a position as chief of public relations at a local telephone company but was asked to leave after two months, with no reason given. Unofficially, he says he was told he was dismissed because of the demands of local authorities.

In Yahontov's case, authorities waged a frontal attack, denouncing him, swaying advertisers and financing a competitor. But sometimes the legal system is used to shut down a news operation.

In June 2005, a court in the southern city of Saratov convicted Eduard Abrosimov of criminal defamation and sentenced him to seven months in a penal colony for defaming public officials in his articles. That same month, a court in the central city of Smolensk convicted journalist Nikolai Goshko of similar charges and gave him a five-year sentence. The charge later was reduced to criminal insult, and he was freed in August.

Chelysheva and her colleague Stanislav Dmitriyevsky also have felt the sting of the legal system. The two run the Russian-Chechen Information Agency and a monthly newspaper with an online edition called Pravo-Zashchita (Human Rights Defense). They operate under the auspices of the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, a small nongovernment organization that receives funding from the United States. CPJ and other media groups view the publication as one of the few reliable sources of news on Chechnya.

In June 2006, Amnesty International presented Chelysheva and Dmitriyevsky with an award for their courage. But Russian authorities seem determined to shutter their operation.

The organization has been hauled into court on charges of tax evasion and had its bank account frozen. Dmitriyevsky, editor of the newspaper and director of the Friendship Society, was accused of inciting ethnic and religious racial hatred for statements published by Chechen rebels calling for peace talks. In February, he was found guilty and given a suspended jail sentence. He continues to receive death threats.

At one point, government agents raided the office, confiscating back issues of the newspaper and collecting the names and addresses of correspondents who filed stories from inside Chechnya. Three of them were tracked down and interrogated. The big blow came on October 13, when a regional court ordered the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society closed under a new NGO law enacted by the Putin government in January. Human Rights Watch called it the latest in the blatant attempts to silence the group and harass its leader.

Prosecutors accused the organization of several violations, such as changing its address without informing authorities. Prosecutors argued that under the new legislation, no one with a criminal record can run an NGO and that the group had not distanced itself enough from Dmitriyevsky.

A draconian law went into effect this year expanding the definition of "extremism" to include criticism of state officials by the news media. If convicted, reporters could be jailed for up to three years and their publications closed. CPJ's Joel Simon views the law as reminiscent of those used in Soviet times to control the media.

Still, some independent publications manage to survive. In its report on Russia for 2005, CPJ noted that the Kremlin has allowed some independent newspapers and Web sites to engage in political debate and government criticism, but these are read only "by a relatively small, well-educated urban audience" and do not pose a threat to the government.

So far, there has been little outcry from the Russian public on behalf of press freedom. Most of the support from within the country comes from organizations such as the Russian Union of Journalists, the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations and the Glasnost Defense Fund.

Keeping an international spotlight on the atrocities committed against journalists in Russia provides a modicum of protection. Chelysheva is convinced that aid from Human Rights First, an organization based in New York City, and other outside groups helped her news outlet fend off a 2005 tax evasion charge. The case was closed in January for lack of evidence. She and her allies could not have prevailed without help, she says.

In September, the Russian Union of Journalists established the country's first formal working group on trauma and journalism in partnership with the Seattle-based Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. CPJ plans a return trip to pressure Russian authorities about the lack of progress in the investigations of the deaths of the murdered journalists.

Aidan White, general secretary of the International Federation of Journalists, is organizing a commission of inquiry into the apparent immunity for those who murder media professionals in Russia, inviting a who's who of media support organizations to join the effort. "The killing of Politkovskaya and the callous response by the Putin regime was the last straw," says White. "Enough is enough."

The prognosis for the Russian media remains bleak. None of the sources interviewed for this story was optimistic that Putin would pull back from his steady march toward authoritarianism or that attacks against dissident journalists will end anytime soon. "I don't think anyone has seen anything we would call improvement in the situation," says Persephone Miel, Internews' regional director for Europe and Eurasia.

Despite the grim outlook, despite the danger, Oksana Chelysheva vows to continue her work. On October 13, her employer, the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, was the first NGO shut down under a restrictive new law. An appeal is pending.

In the meantime, Chelysheva and her colleagues continue planning the next issue of the society's monthly newspaper, hoping there will be some way to get it out. It will be dedicated to Anna Politkovskaya.

Why does she persist in the struggle? "I love this country. I want it to be better, to be safer for my daughter... We can only help by informing the world. But often, we feel our attempts seem desperate. We don't see any kind of adequate response to the horror stories. Nobody feels concerned about what is going on in Russia."

Senior writer Sherry Ricchiardi (sricchia@iupui.edu) has examined coverage of the Middle East, Afghanistan and Iraq in recent issues of AJR.