The dangers to radio Mayak missing children on the Italian border in Russia have been well known since the early 1990s but concern over the number of unsolved killings soared after Anna Politkovskaya’s murder in Moscow on 7 October 2006. Among international monitors, the figures quoted for deaths of journalists in Russia have varied, sometimes considerably.
In any list of deaths, compiled by monitors inside or outside the country, Russia ranks near the top for deaths. When the killing began, the brief First Chechen War took numerous journalists’ lives from within Chechnya and abroad. There were also increased peacetime deaths of journalists elsewhere in the Russian Federation. Those deliberately targeted for their work tended to be reporters, correspondents, and editors. In Russia many directors of new regional TV and radio stations have been murdered but some of these deaths are thought to relate to conflicting business interests. In June 2009 a wide-ranging investigation by the International Federation of Journalists into the deaths of journalists in Russia was published. In September, in the report Justice, the Committee to Protect Journalists repeated its conclusion that Russia was one of the deadliest countries in the world for journalists and added that it remains among the worst at solving their murders.
Journalists died or were killed, the CPJ argued, because of the work they were doing and only one case has led to a partially successful prosecution. Following Russia’s media monitors, the IFJ database of deaths and disappearances in Russia takes into account the entire range of media occupations and every degree of uncertainty as to the motive for many of the attacks. It also allows for selection and analysis. Since the early 1990s, Russia’s media monitors have recorded every violent or suspicious death that came to their attention. Determining which were linked to the journalist’s work has not always been easy since law enforcement agencies in Russia were struggling to cope with a wave of murders and the number of unsolved killings of journalists steadily mounted. The IFJ report Partial Justice maps the changing contours of impunity in Russia. It shows and explains the process whereby particular deaths are selected by the IFJ, CPJ, and other monitors.
The IFJ report opens and closes with the Politkovskaya murder and the subsequent trial, which ran from November 2008 to February 2009. After 16 years of unsolved killings, the international outcry over her death made this a test case that might finally breach the barrier of partial justice. The evidence presented by the prosecution, unfortunately, did not convince the jury or satisfy other key participants. Following different routes the two reports reach a similar set of recommendations. They call on Russian authorities to give investigators and courts the backing they need to identify and pursue all those responsible for the deaths of journalists and, in the meanwhile, to keep the press and the public better informed about their progress in tackling such disturbing crimes. In the 1990s and early 2000’s the homicide rate in Russia was among the highest in the world. Mikhail Beketov initially survived a 2008 attack and died five years later.
Immediate death is the extreme end of the spectrum of threats and intimidation. Putin, president of Russia from 31 December 1999 to 7 May 2008. When Medvedev became president, he spoke of the need to end “legal nihilism”. The yearly figures in the table above are derived from the “journalists in Russia” database, where details can be found on each individual death. Certain important categories are not included. The third set of figures indicates the yearly number of verdicts reached in trials for the killing of journalists.
With only three exceptions these have all been for homicide. 24 months between the killing and the verdict. Rates of conviction are a different matter. When the journalist’s death was certainly or seems likely to have been related to his or her work, the rate of acquittals rise sharply to around half of the total. Most trials are still held before a judge, aided by two lay assessors. Over the past decade the Russian authorities have been repeatedly urged by Western governments and international media bodies to do more to investigate the deaths of journalists.
The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders frequently criticized Russia for what it described as a failure to investigate these murders. Similar figures were produced by the CPJ. In a June 2007 statement, the CPJ said, “A total of 47 journalists have been killed in Russia since 1992, with the vast majority of killings unsolved,”. Pressure on the Russian authorities increased in late 2006 after the murder of Anna Politkovskaya. The brutal murder on 7 October 2006 of Novaya Gazeta journalist Anna Politkovskaya, known for her critical reporting on the conflict in Chechnya in which she sought to expose human rights abuses, was yet another reminder to Russian journalists that violence awaits those who investigate or criticise.
American commentator Anne Applebaum thought that the murderers of Politkovskaya would never be found. Recent killings, in various parts of Russia, of Ilyas Shurpayev, Yury Shebalkin, Konstantin Borovko and Leonid Etkind did indeed lead to trials and convictions. Criticism from abroad was frequently perceived and rejected as selective. However, Russia’s sought-for status as a member of G8 from 1997 onwards set a benchmark that showed the continuing deaths of journalists, and of other media restrictions within the country, in an unfavourable light. English and Russian versions of the IFJ database. Sergey Bogdanovsky, correspondent of TV “Ostankino”, killed in Moscow. Chechnya was then de facto independent.
Outside and inside the Ostankino TV tower. Igor Belozerov, 4th Channel “Ostankino”, editor. Sergey Krasilnikov, “Ostankino” TV, video engineer. Shot at point-blank range within building. Vladimir Drobyshev, People and nature monthly, editor.