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Journalists in Former Soviet Union Face Mounting Dangers


Last week’s kidnapping, murder, and dumping of the body of a prominent human rights lawyer and journalist in the North Caucasus represents just the latest example of the phenomenon of contract assassinations in Russia, which the International Union of Journalists calls “one of the most dangerous countries to work in.”

Netalya Estemirova was killed in Chechnya, but her body was found in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia. However, the grisly deed drew wide attention in the international media because such occurrences have become commonplace in some areas of the former Soviet Union.

A Russian Perspective

Russian journalist Masha Lipman of the Carnegie Moscow Center calls such attacks “routine.” Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA’s International Press Club, Lipman said this year has been especially deadly for journalists and human rights advocates who expose the complicity of government officials and other powerful individuals in corrupt activities.

On a cold winter afternoon in February, for example, a well known human rights lawyer and a young woman journalist were gunned down as they were walking out of a press conference in Moscow. “In most of these contract assassinations, once a journalist infringes on an important interest in business, politics, or banking, he is taking a very high risk,” Masha Lipman observed. According to her, people tend to settle scores with their adversaries by contracting an assassin. “Many of them know they will get away with it. It is very rare that a perpetrator is found, prosecuted, and sentenced,” Lipman explained.

People in the human rights community have blamed the authorities in Chechnya for Netalya Estimirova’s death and have even pointed fingers at the Chechen president, who enjoys the backing of the Kremlin. The North Caucasus is an especially dangerous region, but people also get killed in the middle of Moscow, Lipman said. For example, Anna Politkovskaya, the most prominent of these victims, was gunned down next to her apartment building.

Government leaders in the region, Lipman explained, tend to confuse the security of the state with protecting themselves from criticism. “No court in Russia can make a decision that would challenge the performance of the government, so the perpetrators of contract assassinations can act with impunity,” she said.

An American Perspective

Eurasian expert Paul Goble said this attitude is pervasive not only in the Russian Federation but also in other former Soviet republics. “Powerful people do not believe in the freedom of the press, but believe the press should serve those in power. Journalists who try to do their job – by reporting fairly and objectively about what’s going on – put themselves at risk of losing their jobs, their apartments, and even their lives,” Goble added.

Furthermore, television is the most important of the mass media, and in the former Soviet Union, television is generally owned and controlled by the government, Goble said. In the North Caucasus region of the Russian Federation, conditions exist for what he calls a “nearly perfect storm.” They include ethnic and religious grievances, conflicts over land and power, and a “totally incompetent central government that responds to every challenge by using brute force.”

In the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, the media are far less restricted, according to Paul Goble. Ukraine, Armenia, and Georgia fall somewhere in the middle. And in Belarus, Azerbaijan, and Central Asia, the media are tightly controlled and journalists work at great risk.

A Kyrgyz Perspective

Alisher Khamidov, a journalist in Kyrgyzstan, said journalists in Central Asia face serious hazards. They are often targets of physical assaults when they write something that irritates important people. For example, a few days ago, a journalist was beaten by a police officer, and he later died of his wounds.

Journalists are not trusted by officials or ordinary members of the community, Khamidov said. Because they receive very low wages and lack the means to travel, corruption also poses a problem. It is extremely dangerous to be an independent journalist in Central Asia or an investigative journalist. According to Khamidov, that can make reporting on elections and examining “dirty politics” extremely risky. “So we journalists use self-censorship,” he said.

The Exceptions

Occasionally in the former Soviet Union, governments do ultimately pursue those responsible for contract killings. For example, just this week in Ukraine, a former top police officer in the Interior Ministry was arrested and charged with organizing the abduction and murder of Internet journalist Georgiy Gongadze nine years ago. The former high-ranking official is thought to have personally strangled the victim.

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