In Russia, it is a crime for which there are seldom any criminals.
The ugly post-Soviet tradition of assassinating journalists and human rights activists raised its head in Russia again last week when a human rights lawyer and a reporter from one of the country’s last independent investigative newspapers were gunned down on a Moscow street in broad daylight before hundreds of witnesses.
“The murder shows we are in a post-totalitarian state that is returning to its old ways,” said Russian human rights activist, Lev Ponomaryov.
Before their deaths, the two victims, Novaya Gazeta reporter Anastasia Barburova, 25, and lawyer Stanislav Markelov, 34, had attended a press conference where Markelov had spoken out against the early release of a former Russian army colonel who had been sentenced to ten years in prison in 2003 for the brutal rape and murder of a 18-year-old girl, Elza Kungayeva, during the Chechnya war. Leaving the news conference together, the two were approached from behind by a man wearing a mask and holding a silencer-equipped gun. The killer shot Markelov twice in the head and Barburova once, killing the former instantly while Barburova died several hours later. Witnesses reported the assassin then walked “casually” to a nearby subway stop where he stopped only long enough to turn and point his pistol at a brave soul who had followed him.
But, as one observer pointed out: why shouldn’t the killer walk unhurriedly away from a double murder of a journalist and a human rights activist on a busy Moscow street since such assassins have very little to fear in Russia? Despite assurances by authorities of full investigations, the killers are very rarely arrested and the murders they commit almost always remain unsolved.
Barburova’s untimely death increases to about 15 the number of journalists killed in Russia since Putin became president in 2000. Another 30 were murdered during the tumultuous 1990s after the fall of the Soviet regime. In 2006, Russia, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, had earned the proud distinction of being the third most dangerous place in the world for journalists after Iraq and Algeria. But while Iraq and Algeria are embroiled in civil conflicts, Russia’s killings have taken place in peacetime.
Ironically, Barburova’s assassination occurred just when the Moscow murder trial of her famous Novaya Gazeta predecessor, the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, recessed until February 3 when the court will hear the final arguments regarding the four men charged in her death. Politkovskaya, a fearless journalist and staunch anti-Putin critic who wrote a book, Putin’s Russia: Life in a Failing Democracy, reported on Russian and Chechen government human rights abuses in the Chechen war. She was murdered in 2006 in her Moscow apartment building’s elevator (she was shot five times), setting off protests worldwide.
Both Anna Politkovskaya and Stanislav Markelov had received numerous death threats during their careers and were closely allied in their struggle to build a just and democratic Russia based on the rule of law. Markelov, described as “a friend” of Novaya Gazeta, would represent in court the Chechen victims that Politkovskaya wrote about. Three of the four men on trial for Politkovskaya’s murder are Chechens, and it is strongly believed Moscow’s recent homicidal outrage may also be connected with that conflict.
But probably no investigative journalist or human rights activist is safe in Russia, no matter what the cause. Barburova had only started working at Novaya Gazeta last October and, knowledgeable about neo-Nazis and other fascist groups in Russia, was reporting on this area. Even the Russian human rights lawyer representing the Politkovskaya family at the recessed murder trial, Karinna Moskalenko, is believed to have been the target an assassination attempt. Ten toxic pellets were discovered in her car last October; the resulting illness caused Moskalenko to miss the pre-trial hearings.
Another Russian journalist, Yelena Trugbova, who also wrote a book critical of Putin, felt so unsafe about returning to her homeland she applied for and received asylum in England last April. Also last year, journalists in Russia were murdered for reasons ranging from simply exposing local corruption to opposing Islamic extremism.
The Novaya Gazeta, owned partially by former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, is a small-circulation newspaper that claims to have a million readers, among whom are some of Russia’s best-educated people. It has been described as “the only truly critical newspaper with national influence in Russia today.” Prior to Barburova’s and Politkovskaya’s deaths, two other Novaya Gazeta journalists have also been murdered. Igor Domnikov was killed in 2000 and Yuri Shchekochikhin in 2003. Five people were convicted in 2007 of murdering Domnikov, the first ever convictions for a journalist killing in Putin’s Russia.
After nearly a decade of relatively open reporting in the 1990s, Putin began to clamp down on the Russian media after he became president in 2000. Observers believe it was because the reporting of the Chechen war’s brutality was becoming too accurate for the Kremlin. Putin also believed a controlled media would help stabilize a Russia destabilized by the country’s 1998 economic collapse, while a tame media would also help solidify his hold on power.
To this end, the Russian government has taken over Russia’s largest media outlets such as Channel One and NTV television. Those few outside the Kremlin’s control that take an anti-government or anti-corruption line are subjected to intimidation tactics if they do not heed warnings to mend their ways. Such methods include pressure on advertisers, disappearance of the offending publication from news kiosks and arrests of journalists and editors on trumped-up charges.
But by cynically pressuring and twisting an important democratic institution like the press simply to maintain power withholds a fundamental right from the people to a free media where they can express their opinions and exchange ideas without fear. A controlled media like Russia’s only turns a country away from democracy and into a lawless, autocratic state where its brave, honest and decent citizens lie murdered on sidewalks, while their killers walk casually away.