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Russian Journalists Face Violence, Political Pressure - 2004-08-06

The murder of an American journalist, Paul Klebnikov, in Moscow a month ago was the latest reminder that journalists in Russia face constant threats from a shady coalition of criminal, business, and political forces. VOA's Jaroslaw Anders looks at the causes of this menace and its impact on Russian media.

Paul Klebnikov was gunned down from a passing car as he was leaving his office in Moscow. The 41 year-old descendent of Russian émigrés spent a lot of time in Russia. Most recently he was editor-in-chief of the local edition of “Forbes Magazine.” As an American running a prestigious Western publication he felt quite secure in Russia. Masha Gessen, a freelance Moscow journalist, believes this sense of security must have annoyed his enemies, whoever they were. “He did not feel vulnerable like Russian journalists feel,” she says, “and I think that that in itself was actually reason enough to teach him a lesson.” Keeping Russian journalists vulnerable and afraid, says Masha Gessen, is in the interest of a murky coalition of the criminal underground, business, security organs, and possibly some elements in the political establishment. To break an unwritten rule means to expose oneself to threats, harassment, and even death. “There is a long list of untouchables, and the list varies, and there is no hard set of rules,” says Masha Gessen, “but it is very clear that there are things that are talked about, but never actually printed on paper.”

According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalist (CPJ) Paul Klebnikov was the fiveteenth journalist killed in Russia during president Putin's tenure. Alexander Lupis, Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator at the Committee, says journalists reporting on government corruption, organized crime or human rights abuses are among the most endangered members of the press. Journalists get killed while investigating drug smuggling, trafficking in weapons, trafficking in women, crimes which are widespread and which Russian police is unable or unwilling to cope with.

David Satter, a specialist on Russian law enforcement at the Hudson Institute, adds that equally dangerous is writing about fortunes of some of Russia’s wealthiest people. This is exactly what Paul Klebnikov did in his books and articles. “If a journalist uncovers the sources of an oligarch’s or a businessman's ill-gotten wealth or shows his connection to the political authorities, those are things that can get a person killed.”

Mr. Satter says that vocal criticism of President Putin's government can also land a journalist in trouble, although in such cases physical intimidation is rare. Alexander Lupis of the Committee to Protect Journalists agrees that the government uses different means to silence its critics. ”It has tended to rely on legal tactics. It was using politicized prosecutors to create a case against the owner of the media outlet, or getting a company that is either state-owned or very friendly to the government to do a hostile corporate takeover.”

Russian authorities claim that such measures are taken simply to enforce media and tax laws, and have nothing to do with censorship. But Masha Gessen says that expressing political opinions in Russia can be dangerous, and people are getting more and more afraid to say things that can be considered politically inflammatory. “I have been threatened and have had my house violated twice as a result of anti-Putin articles that I have written,” she says. In both cases it was made clear to her that she was being punished for expressing her views.

Analysts agree that even if the government has had no direct part in the acts of violence against journalists, it has little to show in the way of prosecuting the attackers. So far there have been no indictments in any of the well-publicized cases. “Our feeling is that this lawlessness towards journalists who happen to be critical towards the government is part of the media policy,” says Alexander Lupis of the Committee to Protect Journalists. “It makes journalists feel vulnerable and censor themselves and that's actually very good for the Kremlin because then they don't have to lift a finger.”

Other analysts, like David Satter of the Hudson Institute, say the government would like to bring the murderers of journalists to justice. But most attacks are carried out by professional assassins, and contract killings are almost never solved in Russia.

Press freedom groups point out that Russian media, exposed both to criminal violence and to government pressures, cannot perform their duty to inform and educate the public.