Monday, September 21, 2009

CPJ report condemns Russia’s treatment of journalists

A damning new report from a US-based watchdog says Russia’s treatment of journalists is worse now than it was during the Communist era. 17 journalists have been murdered there since 2000 and in only one case have the killers been caught and punished. Only Iraq and Algeria are more dangerous for members of the press. According to the report from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) this represents “a sorry record for a great and powerful nation that embarked on democratisation after more than 70 years of brutal repression”. (photo credit: Argenberg)

The mixed messages on Russia appear in CPJ's report “Anatomy of Justice: The Unsolved Killings in Russia” released last week. It shows secrecy, corruption, lack of accountability, and conflicts of interest routinely thwart justice in the murders of journalists in Russia. As well as expressing outrage, the report offers guidelines and evidence for restarting investigations into unsolved murders. “When journalists are threatened, democracy itself is threatened,” it warned.

The report laments the apathy of the Russian people who seem unconcerned by the murders. CPJ says this is because the vast majority get only government-filtered news, so outrage has been muted. The 17 journalists who died were uncovering the truth in a wide range of topics: organized crime, corporate corruption, bribe-taking among public officials, and unrest in the Northern Caucasus republics. In each case authorities pretended there was another motive involved such as robbery or a personal grudge so as not to investigate the political element of the killings.

Take the case of Aleksei Sidorov, editor of Tolyattinskoye Obozreniye who was killed in the Volga region city of Tolyatti. Sidorov had exposed organised crime and government corruption in the car-manufacturing city (“Russia’s Detroit”) as did the editor who preceeded him, Valery Ivanov. Assailants shot dead Ivanov and 18 months later stabbed Sidorov repeatedly with an ice pick. The official version was Sidorov was killed in a random street brawl after he refused a stranger’s appeals for vodka. As in many similar cases, investigators made no efforts to check out his records, interview witnesses, or visit his news organisation.

The Novaya Gazeta newspaper has suffered more than most for its courage in exploring Russia’s underbelly. Three of its best reporters - Igor Domnikov, Yuri Shchekochikhin, and Anna Politkovskaya – have been murdered. In February, three defendants in the Politkovskaya trial were found not guilty after the evidence presented against was skimpy. Though the case is now being retried, no one expects justice to emerge. “Once again, the state had given the masterminds an easy pass,” said the CPJ. “Only the small fry were in the dock.”

CPJ says the failure to achieve justice reflects shortcomings at every level: political, investigative, prosecutorial, and judicial. The poor record of solving journalism-related killings stands in sharp contrast to Russia’s stated record in solving murders among the general population. One of the country’s top law enforcement officials, Aleksandr Bastrykin, has said the vast majority of murders have been solved in recent years. Bastrykin, however, has publicly acknowledged discovering who ordered the Politkovskaya murder would be much harder.

The Kremlin must take a large slice of the responsibility for the problem. It has marginalised critical journalists by barring them from state-controlled national television and obstructing their work through regulations and bureaucratic harassment. Murder investigations are secretive affairs, marred by conflicts of interest and frequently influenced by external political forces. Investigators have failed to follow up on journalism-related leads or question professional contacts while police have concealed important evidence without explanation. It is hardly surprising to find many of those murdered were among the harshest critics of the Kremlin.

CPJ have recommended the Prosecutor General order a thorough re-examination of all 17 cases. It should pursue unchecked leads, track down wanted suspects, and examine professional motives. Where there are conflicts of interest, cases should be reassigned. Investigators and prosecutors should also communicate clearly and regularly with victims’ families. Until this is overturned, the Russia media system will continue to be based on self-censorship leaving many important areas under-investigated or completely uncovered. CPJ said the international community had a role in holding Russian leaders accountable for their record. Key institutions such as the OSCE and the Council of Europe need to resist Russian attacks that claim they should not concern themselves with human rights. The murdered 17 deserve nothing less. Also, it is in their own vested interests to do so. "An undemocratic Russia is a threat to international stability," CPJ said.

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