Ivan Safronov was buried on Wednesday after becoming the latest journalist to die in suspicious circumstances in Russia. On Friday 2 March he fell to his death from the fifth floor window of his Moscow apartment building. Prosecutors have opened an inquest into his death and police are investigating a case of ‘forcible suicide’.
His neighbours described Safranov as a jovial well-balanced family man but Russian police are saying they suspect his death was a suicide. Two neighbouring students witnessed his death. “My friend and I stepped out onto the balcony to smoke,” recounted Lena, a psychology student at the Sholokhov Pedagogical Institute. “Suddenly we heard a thud, like snow falling off the rooftop. It was almost empty in the courtyard, and we immediately noticed a man lying directly in front of the canopy”. The girls called an ambulance but their call was not accepted, however. “We cannot collect all the drunks in Moscow on Friday night,” they were told, along with the advice to call back in half an hour if he was still there. He did not go away.
The 51 year old Safranov was the military affairs writer for the daily Kommersant and had written exposes of abuses in the Russian Defence Ministry. The newspaper’s editor Andrei Vasilyev told CBC News in Moscow that the business newspaper is reviewing the circumstances surrounding his death. "There were no police for four hours, so he just lay there dead," Vasilyev said. "What do you think of that? So we decided to look at his cellphone records and text messages, the things the police should be doing."
According to Kommersant, Safronov was researching a story about Russian plans to sell weapons to Iran and Syria. Safranov had taken a sick day on the Friday and gone to a doctor. Although it was suggested he may have received bad news from the doctor, no suicide note was found in the apartment. Safronov was checking information on possible new deliveries of Russian weapons to the Middle East while at the February IDEX 2007 arms exhibition in the United Arab Emirates.
Safronov was interested in the sale of Su-30 fighter jets to Syria and S-300V missiles to Iran. He had information that those deals would be concluded through Belarus, in order for Moscow to avoid accusations in the West of selling weapons to pariah states. The US is leading international pressure against Iran’s nuclear program. In January they strongly resisted a Russian contract to sell arms to Iran and Syria and imposed sanctions against Russian jetmaker Sukhoi and arms exporter Rosoboronexport. So it is unlikely the Kremlin would have appreciated Safranov's latest investigation.
Safranov is the highest profile Russian journalist fatality since last October’s death of Anna Politkovskaya. Politkovskaya was slain in her apartment after a long history of vociferous criticism of the corruption in Russian society. The Kremlin strongly denied any involvement in her killing and the case remains unsolved. Her death was one of four killings of media workers in Russia in 2006 that added to at least another 255 killings of journalists and media staff in Russia since 1993.
Although Russian authorities have once again denied any involvement in the Safranov case, the fact remains that very nasty things happen to people who investigate state corruption, human-rights abuses or shady financial deals. Russia is the second-deadliest country for journalists after Iraq, according to a new study from the International News Safety Institute. In Russia, the FSB (ex-KGB) have gained enormous power under Putin and are notorious for their intimidation and violence against its perceived enemies. The Institute's survey has found that assassination has emerged as one of the most efficient tools for silencing journalists in Russia and elsewhere.
Since 2000, the worldwide journalist death toll has steadily increased, with 147 fatalities in 2005, followed by a record 168 dead in 2006. The report counted anyone involved in news gathering, from journalists to support employees such as translators. Richard Sambrook, chairman of the special inquiry and global news director for the BBC World said “The figures show that killing a journalist is virtually risk free. Nine out of 10 murderers in the past decade have never been prosecuted.”