The murder of Anna Politkovskya – gunned down in the centre of Moscow – shocked many in the west. Yet for Russia’s journalists it was just one more killing to add to a growing and grim toll.
Statistics about the killings of journalists vary depending on the criteria used but one thing they all show is that media freedom in Russia is seriously under threat from killings, physical attacks and the impunity with which they are carried out.
And now one of the few organisations prepared to stand up for Russia’s journalists – the Russian Union of Journalists (RUJ) is itself under attack.
Last week the World Congress of the International Federation of Journalists took place in Moscow. The city was chosen to allow the world community of journalists to show solidarity with the crisis facing our Russian colleagues. And yet the congress itself became a target for those who seek to silence debate and stifle independent media in Russia.
On the eve of the congress the RUJ was served with papers by the Russian Agency of State Property threatening it with eviction from its premises after 27 years. Pressure was brought to bear on sponsors of the conference causing huge financial hardship for the union. Speakers were pressured to pull out and media were discouraged in no uncertain terms from reporting the major event on impunity and the killing of journalists in Russia which opened the congress. A planned protest over the killings of journalists had to be called off amid fears for the safety of delegates after police had attacked other recent protests.
Since 1993 more than 40 journalists have been killed in Russia.
In 1994 Dmitry Kholodov, a reporter on the popular daily Moskovsky Komsomolets was blown to pieces by a parcel bomb in a suitcase he had been tipped off to collect. The 27-year-old reporter had been investigating corruption in the paratroop regiment and his death sparked one of the highest-profile scandals in former president Boris Yeltsin’s Russia.
A year later Vladislav Listyev, a popular journalist and talk show host was gunned down in his apartment block. He had irritated powerful advertising interests with links to the government. Despite a major public outcry, his killers and those who ordered his killing, were never found.
Since Putin took office in 2000, 14 more journalists have been murdered in contract killings, including the Russian American editor of the Moscow edition of Forbes magazine, Paul Klebnikov. Only one in ten of the murders since 2000 has come to court.
Dozens of others have been attacked, beaten, threatened, harassed by officials, kidnapped and in some cases charged with criminal defamation. Russia is up there with Iraq, Colombia and Algeria as a nation where the killers of journalists have impunity.
But it is not just the killings. For three or four years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, things changed. There were guarantees of greater press freedom under a more progressive media law. Pravda, Izvestia and other papers came under the control of the journalists themselves for a time.
But it didn’t last. As the much-vaunted free market took over, as the country’s assets were plundered by corrupt entrepreneurs, so the media came under the control of big business as well. Banks, oil and gas companies came to control newspapers and TV. And after Vladimir Putin started his crackdown on the rogue oligarchs, all the others fell in to line – and the media came under the effective control of the Kremlin and the man from the KGB.
Closing the recent IFJ Congress Aidan White, its general Secretary said: “There is a process of intimidation in Russia that is unacceptable.
“We must say loudly and clearly that we stand with our Russian colleagues and when we go home we must still stand shoulder to shoulder with the Russian Union of Journalists.”