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Journalists in Russia Face Threats from All Sides

Today Sherry Ricchiardi of the American Journalism Review published an appreciably comprehensive survey of the increasingly dangerous environment for journalists in Russia, based around the murder of Anna Politkovskaya. Ricchiardi points out that investigative journalists face threats from many different parties, both in the public and private sectors. Some excerpts:

Over the past six years, journalists in Russia have been poisoned, bludgeoned with axes, shot in the head at point-blank range and pummeled with baseball bats and hammers. Some have ended up in prison doing hard labor or forced into exile. Others, like Chelysheva, go about their work every day knowing they could be targets. … The attacks come from all directions. The order to kill might be given by a local Mafia don or the ruler of a provincial fiefdom upset over a reporter’s probing into corporate crime. A Kremlin official miffed over stories on the bloodletting in Chechnya might put out the word to hire a hit man. The bottom line: Gangland assassins appear to operate with impunity in Russia. This time, the masterminds behind the assassination miscalculated. Along with silencing a bothersome reporter, they brought instant worldwide attention to Politkovskaya’s reporting on torture, murder and attacks against civilians in Chechnya and other parts of the conflict-plagued North Caucasus. Suddenly, there was a rash of stories about the Kremlin’s crackdown on civil liberties in Russia and the retreat from democratic reform. … “Putin has pretty much destroyed the free media of Russia,” Murphy, who spent three years covering Russia before being reassigned to London in July, said in an interview. “When you go out to the regions, you always hear horror stories about local journalists being harassed… They get arrested, have drugs and guns planted in their homes, get beaten up and have criminal libel laws used against them. Then their newspapers go bankrupt to pay for their defense.” … Alex Lupis, a former CPJ program coordinator now on a fellowship at the Russian Union of Journalists in Moscow, sees the current harassment of the media very much in line with the Soviet experience under the KGB. “Any journalist doing serious investigative work is extremely concerned about [Federal Security Service] surveillance and eavesdropping, which is considered to be widespread,” Lupis wrote in an e-mail interview. “The KGB and FSB were never reformed and vetted, so the exact same system remains in place and completely unaccountable to anyone but the president himself.” Nina Ognianova, who replaced Lupis as CPJ’s program coordinator for Europe and Central Asia, is cautious when she contacts Russian journalists. “Whenever I speak with Oksana [Chelysheva] on the phone, I always ask, ‘Is it OK to talk about this now?’ Their phone conversations are recorded to use against them; their e-mail messages are screened. It’s very bizarre. It’s literally reminiscent of Stalin’s era,” Ognianova says. Russian journalists know well the topics that are verboten — organized crime, government corruption and the conflict in Chechnya. All 13 who died at the hands of hired killers since 2000 were deeply embroiled in reporting on one of those areas. … Despite the grim outlook, despite the danger, Oksana Chelysheva vows to continue her work. On October 13, her employer, the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, was the first NGO shut down under a restrictive new law. An appeal is pending. In the meantime, Chelysheva and her colleagues continue planning the next issue of the society’s monthly newspaper, hoping there will be some way to get it out. It will be dedicated to Anna Politkovskaya. Why does she persist in the struggle? “I love this country. I want it to be better, to be safer for my daughter… We can only help by informing the world. But often, we feel our attempts seem desperate. We don’t see any kind of adequate response to the horror stories. Nobody feels concerned about what is going on in Russia.”

Complete article.