/ 20 September 2009

Killings muzzle Russian media

In the past decade alone, at least 17 journalists in Russia have been killed. Those murdered represent the breadth of Russian journalism — editors, reporters, photographers, columnists,
cameramen and a publisher.

They come from large cities and small towns across Russia; some, such as Novaya Gazeta journalist Anna Politkovskaya and Forbes Russia editor Paul Klebnikov, had earned international acclaim, while others had covered issues significant only to their communities.

They all engaged in critical reporting that upset powerful interests — whether in government , business, law enforcement or organised crime. Shockingly, in only one case have the killers been convicted.

Why are these murders going unsolved?

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has examined these 17 murders, committed under the current Russian leadership, and found that in all cases a lack of transparency and accountability, susceptibility to external pressure, conflicts of interest or insufficient political will have marred official investigations.

The CPJ’s report, Anatomy of Injustice, published this week in Moscow and London, documents the government’s inability to solve the crimes and reflects shortcomings at investigative, prosecutorial and judicial levels.

The report shows that time and again investigators have failed to investigate sufficiently the victims’ journalism as a possible murder motive, or to examine their publications and reporters’ notes, question relevant witnesses and track down potential suspects. At times, important evidence has been lost or concealed.

In a few cases, prosecutors brought untenable cases to trial and in at least one case they brought bogus charges against an innocent man. Failure to solve the killings has undermined public trust in Russia’s justice system and its capacity to protect its citizens.

In short, someone is getting away with murdering journalists in Russia and this record of impunity has had a chilling effect on the press corps.

Russian journalists have shunned sensitive subjects such as corruption, human rights abuses, official wrongdoing and organised crime.

The domestic public and international community have been kept in the dark about relevant issues, which has led to the closing of Russia’s society in recent years — a development that has hurt the country’s aspirations of being perceived as a world leader and a reliable international partner.

Russia’s record of impunity undermines a public pledge made by president Dmitry Medvedev in 2008 that attacks on journalists would be solved. A year earlier, the then-president, Vladimir Putin, made a similar pledge to protect Russia’s press corps. Medvedev and Putin share a moral responsibility for these cases.

They must condemn all violent crimes against the press and demand concrete results from investigating agencies. Russia’s legal authorities should order the thorough re-examination of all the unsolved cases.

International leaders should hold Russia accountable and, if needed, take action in international legal forums. There are some reasons for hope: in July, Russian authorities committed to restarting the failed inquiry into the Klebnikov murder.

For the first time, they agreed to accept assistance from their United States counterparts in the case. Russia’s supreme court has also ordered the case of three suspected accomplices in the murder of Anna Politkovskaya to be returned to prosecutors.

When an influential country — a member of international organisations premised on upholding universal human rights, including the rights to life and freedom of expression — fails to protect those rights at home, it undermines them for everyone. —