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'To be a journalist in Russia is suicide'

Luke Harding

As the trial of three men accused of murdering Anna Politkovskaya continues, Luke Harding reports from Moscow on one editor's fight for life.

The Russian journalist Mikhail Beketov knew the risks he was taking. In a series of articles Beketov had campaigned against the local administration in the Moscow suburb of Khimki. He had received numerous threats. His car had been set on fire. This summer he returned home to discover his dog lying dead on his doorstep.

Beketov continued to publish his newspaper, Khimkinskaya Pravda, which regularly lambasted local officials for corruption and abuse. Finally, it seems, the administration had had enough. On November 11 a gang lay in wait outside his home. When he returned, they savagely attacked him with clubs, breaking his fingers and skull, and leaving him for dead.

Beketov lay unconscious in his garden for almost two days. Eventually a neighbour called the police. She had spotted his leg. The police appeared unbothered by the assault and—assuming he was dead—flung a blanket over Beketov’s face. At this point the journalist’s arm twitched.

“Mikhail is floating between life and death,” his friend Ludmilla Fedotova said last week. Beketov is in a coma. Doctors have amputated his right leg. They may also have to remove his frostbitten fingers. “He wasn’t afraid of anybody,” Fedotova said.

Beketov’s fate is a graphic illustration of the dangers of working as a journalist in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. His story is depressingly typical: according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Russia is now the third most dangerous place in the world to work as a reporter, after Iraq and Algeria.

Since 1992 49 journalists have been murdered in Russia. Last week three men went on trial accused of involvement in the killing of Anna Politkovskaya—the campaigning journalist and fearless Kremlin opponent shot dead in October 2006 outside her Moscow flat.

Investigators have failed to find Politkovskaya’s killer or the person who ordered her murder. Indeed, those responsible for the murder of journalists in Russia are never caught. (There has been only one prosecution.) According to the CPJ, investigators are reluctant to solve cases—fearing for their own safety, as the trail invariably leads back to those in power.

“There are a number of taboo topics for journalists in Russia,” says Nina Ognianova, the CPJ’s programme coordinator in Europe and Central Asia. These include writing about corruption inside the Kremlin and Russia’s secretive spy agency, the Federal Security Service (FSB), she says. Also off-limits is Russia’s North Caucasus—a subject Poltikovskaya addressed repeatedly with her criticism of human rights abuses in Chechnya.

“Russian authorities are very capable of investigating crimes. It’s just the political will is not there,” Ognianova explains. “Investigators are afraid of repercussions. In many cases they work in small circles. Everyone­ knows everybody. Local police and the institutions of power can stop justice in its tracks.”

Beketov, meanwhile, infuriated his local administration by criticising its plans to sell off Khimki’s forest to developers. He also wrote scathingly after officials secretly dug up the bodies of World War II pilots to make way for a supermarket. His last editorial—mockingly titled “Patriots”­- revealed officials had taken a large bank loan with no tender.

“To be a journalist in Russia is suicide­. It’s suicide if you talk about truth,” says Vladimir Yurov, a colleague and friend of Beketov’s. Yurov, the editor of another independent Khimki newspaper, has been attacked three times. On the latest occasion thugs stabbed him 10 times. He survived. “The prosecutor wasn’t interested,” he says, adding: “I’m still working.”

Underlying these attacks on Russian journalists is the nature of modern Russian society, and the sophisticated autocratic state created by Putin, in which the media play a key role. The Kremlin controls all state television networks and most newspapers - leaving journalists who work for independent publications increasingly vulnerable and exposed.

According to Oleg Panfilov, the director of Moscow’s Centre for Journalism in Extreme Situations, there has never been any real freedom of expression in Russia. In recent years the trend has got worse, he says, with journalists who criticise the authorities prosecuted for extremism under Russia’s criminal code. Additionally, state propaganda has reached Soviet levels, he suggests. “There are now around 80 attacks on journalists in Russia every year,” Panfilov notes.

While Russian television is relentlessly pro-Kremlin the country’s newspaper landscape is more variegated. Several publications, including Novaya Gazeta—Politkovskaya’s paper—and the business daily Kommersant, are genuinely independent. There are also other opposition outlets, including Moscow radio station Ekho Moskvy—though their reach is limited.

Why hasn’t the Kremlin shut down the last vestiges of Russia’s independent media? “You have many Russian politicians with houses in London and in France. Russia will have lots of problems with the West if it shuts them down. They understand perfectly that a shimmer of freedom should be visible so Russia can’t be called a totalitarian state,” Panfilov says.

Foreign journalists do not face the same physical dangers as their Russian counterparts, though working as a Moscow correspondent can be tough. “Every story here is folded in layers of obfuscation,” says Tony Halpin, the Times’s Moscow bureau chief. “As a foreigner here it is very difficult to get an understanding of the depths and intricacies of the state. In many cases you are only glimpsing the truth.”

The Russian government now employs several major PR agencies and an army of bloggers to get its pro-Putin message across. It takes a dim view of Western reporters who ask inconvenient questions. Since 2000 Russia has deported or refused entry to 40 journalists. In June the British freelance journalist Simon Pirani was refused entry to Moscow and sent back to London, despite having a valid visa. Pirani, who writes on union issues, was deemed a security threat, officials said later.

Mikhail Beketov’s friends, meanwhile, are praying that he recovers. His chances are not good. “When I saw him he looked terrible. His face is all swollen. His skin looks like glass. He has a tube in his throat. It’s very dangerous in Russia to be a journalist who writes the truth,” says Fedotova.—

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