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Journalists Document Threats to Free Media by Russian Security Services

Authors Irina Borogan (left) and Andrei Soldatov in New York, 7 Oct 2010

Authors Irina Borogan (left) and Andrei Soldatov in New York, 7 Oct 2010

The New York based Committee to Protect Journalists says 19 journalists have been murdered in Russia during the rule of former President and now Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. The independent watchdog group hosted a book presentation Thursday by two Russian investigative journalists who have documented the resurgence of security services under Mr. Putin and the threat those services represent to free media in Russia.

In a recently published book entitled, The New Nobility, Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan cite a law enacted while Mr. Putin was president that expanded the term extremism to include media criticism of state officials. Soldatov says senior Russian officials use legal pressure, including imprisonment to muzzle journalists.

"But if you attack low level officials, for example, a lieutenant, colonel, majors, it might be more difficult for you; it might be more dangerous. The same problem with local and regional governments - they feel [themselves] so uncontrollable, even by the Kremlin, so they feel free to use very harsh methods against journalists," he said.

Harsh methods include attacks that result in broken bones, brain damage and death.

CPJ director for Europe and Central Asia Nina Ognianova introduced the authors of New Nobility, noting that the name of their book is derived from a statement by former FSB (The Federal Security Service) director Nikolai Patrushev. He said the organization is driven by a sense of Russian patriotism. Ognianova says ten years of investigative research by Soldatov and Borogan dispel such a notion.

"It's not a sense of nobility, a sense of service that is driving the services, but rather a sense of greed. And that the security services have really turned into a business; a corporate interest that is functioning without accountability and with impunity," said.Ognianova.

Andrei Soldatov notes Prime Minister Putin is the first Russian leader whose base of power lies exclusively with the security services. He says there was a brief period soon after the Soviet collapse in 1991 when the FSB responded to public opinion and journalists, because it feared the possibility of political reforms. That responsiveness proved to be short-lived.

"The Kremlin openly declared that the FSB was so weakened during the democratic reforms of the 1990's, so the secret services needed support, not criticism. That's why the FSB started to cut contacts with journalists," Soldatov said.

With the accumulation of 19 unsolved and poorly investigated murders of journalists, investigative journalism has been largely silenced in Russia. The authors cite the newspaper Novaya Gazeta as one of the few remaining independent voices left in the country. But even it has had several writers murdered, including Anna Politkosvkaya who was gunned down in Moscow exactly four years ago.

But Irina Borogan notes journalists still obtain inside information about the FSB from dedicated lower level officers who are dissatisfied with wrongdoing at the organization.

"Especially useful for journalists might be fired officers. They have many problems with their leadership and you can use them. And they have very good information for you," Borogan said.

The authors of New Nobility conclude that Russian security services have an excessively suspicious, inward, and clannish mentality that has translated into weak intelligence and counterintelligence operations. They add that security agents are now everywhere in the Russian government, undermining the effectiveness of state governance as a whole.