Last Updated: Friday, 26 December 2014, 10:12 GMT

Attacks on the Press in 2007 - Russia

Publisher Committee to Protect Journalists
Publication Date February 2008
Cite as Committee to Protect Journalists, Attacks on the Press in 2007 - Russia, February 2008, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/47c5677a1e.html [accessed 26 December 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Constitutional constraints posed little problem for a term-limited President Vladimir Putin, who appeared certain to hold power long after his tenure was due to end in 2008. The popular, two-term president hopped into the parliamentary race in the fall, topping the dominant United Russia ticket that took 64 percent of the vote in a December 2 election. Eight days later, Putin endorsed First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to be his successor, smoothing his protégé's road to the March 2008 presidential election. Medvedev returned the favor by announcing that, as president, he would name Putin prime minister – a post likely to carry greater powers given United Russia's control of parliament.

The parliamentary campaign offered plenty of alarming signs for the press and civil society. Authorities cracked down on dissent, moved aggressively to limit news coverage of any party other than United Russia, and harassed the few news outlets that tried to cover the opposition. In an unambiguous signal that Russia would not tolerate outside scrutiny, the Central Election Commission slashed by three-quarters the number of international election observers allowed to monitor the vote. A mere 300 observers were allowed to monitor roughly 100,000 polling stations.

Putin's plans were shrouded in secrecy for most of the year, but his government's determination to muzzle critics was pronounced and clear. Three journalists were behind bars when CPJ conducted its annual census on December 1. Two journalists committed "suicide" under mysterious circumstances. Critical media outlets and nongovernmental groups were harassed or closed altogether. Journalists took fewer risks in covering sensitive subjects such as corruption, organized crime, and human rights abuses. Authorities applied new extremism charges, bureaucratic harassment, and Soviet-style forced psychiatric detention. And they deployed special forces to disperse peaceful opposition demonstrations and to prevent journalists from covering the protests.

Despite an increasingly repressive climate, authorities made progress in three high-profile journalist murders – those of Igor Domnikov, Yuri Shchekochikhin, and Anna Politkovskaya, all reporters with the fiercely independent Moscow newspaper Novaya Gazeta. Five men were convicted in August in the 2000 murder of Domnikov – the first convictions in a reporter's slaying obtained during Putin's eight-year tenure. The landmark verdict was followed by another encouraging sign. A newly formed investigative committee under the jurisdiction of the prosecutor general's office announced in November that it had opened a separate probe into the masterminds of Domnikov's murder. The committee, created in September, was charged with overseeing major criminal cases.

Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika announced on August 27 the arrests of 10 suspects in the 2006 murder of Politkovskaya. Chaika told reporters that the suspects included current and former officials from the Interior Ministry and Federal Security Service (FSB), as well as members of a criminal gang headed by an ethnic Chechen. Two days later, a spokeswoman for the Moscow City Court announced that a warrant had been issued for an 11th suspect, a former police officer with the Moscow Directorate for Combating Organized Crime. Authorities provided no details on the suspects' alleged involvement.

In October, the prosecutor's investigative committee said it would open a criminal probe into the mysterious July 2003 death of Yuri Shchekochikhin, deputy editor of Novaya Gazeta, who died from a purported "acute allergy." At the time of his death, Shchekochikhin was uncovering high-level corruption involving top officials with the FSB and the prosecutor general's office. Colleagues, who had repeatedly sought a criminal investigation, said they believe the 53-year-old journalist was poisoned to stop his reporting. The sudden illness that befell Shchekochikhin during a June 2003 business trip initially had flulike symptoms, which quickly grew into full-fledged organ failure. Hospital authorities sealed – even from Shchekochikhin's family – his medical tests and autopsy, labeling the documents "medical secrets."

The courage displayed by Novaya Gazeta journalists was recognized in November, when CPJ honored Editor-in-Chief Dmitry Muratov with an International Press Freedom Award. Muratov spoke of the heavy price the paper has paid for its independent editorial stance and aggressive investigative reporting.

Fourteen journalists have been slain in direct relation to their work during Putin's tenure, making Russia the world's third-deadliest nation for the press. A CPJ delegation traveled to Moscow in January to meet with Foreign Ministry officials and the president's Council on Human Rights. Expressing grave concern at the lack of progress in journalist murder investigations, the delegation called on Putin to stop the cycle of violence by bringing the perpetrators to justice.

A week later, Putin issued his first public pledge to protect Russia's press corps and noted the importance of Politkovskaya's journalism. "The issue of journalist persecution is one of the most pressing," Putin told the hundreds of reporters gathered in the Kremlin's Round Hall for the annual presidential press conference. "We realize our degree of responsibility in this. We will do everything to protect the press corps." He described Politkovskaya as "a rather sharp critic of authorities," adding, "This is good." His remarks were in sharp contrast to his initial reaction to the murder, in October 2006, when he downplayed the significance of Politkovskaya's work and said "her influence on political life in Russia was minimal."

Putin's pledge to protect the press, though welcomed, was undercut by events that followed. The retrial of two suspects in the 2004 murder of Forbes Russia Editor Paul Klebnikov stalled in March because one suspect went missing. Ivan Safronov, a prominent military correspondent for the business daily Kommersant, died that same month after falling from an upper-floor window in his Moscow apartment building. Prosecutors termed the death a suicide, citing unspecified personal reasons. In a special report in November, "Another Mystery in Moscow," CPJ spotlighted numerous questions that investigators left unanswered.

Safronov, 51, plunged to his death just days after returning from a reporting trip to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, where he had covered an international gathering of defense manufacturers. He left no suicide note, had no evident personal or professional problems, had no life-threatening illness, and was expecting his first grandchild. Just before he supposedly took his own life, he had dropped by a grocery store and picked up some oranges. The fruit was found strewn on the landing between the building's fourth and fifth stories.

Colleagues said Safronov had just obtained sensitive information about Russian arms sales to Syria and Iran – a story that would have embarrassed authorities. He told colleagues that he had been warned not to publish the information, and that the FSB would charge him with disclosing state secrets if he did. For weeks after Safronov's death, authorities did not question reporters or search the journalist's computer or his notes. Ilya Bulavinov, Safronov's editor, told CPJ that authorities appeared uninterested in examining his journalism as a possible motive for murder.

Another journalist's death was also termed a suicide. Vyacheslav Ifanov, 29, a cameraman for the independent television station Novoye Televideniye Aleiska in the Siberian city of Aleisk, was declared the victim of self-induced carbon monoxide poisoning in April. Yet Ifanov had received death threats, and family members found wounds on his body. On the night before his death, he was featured in a television report that described an earlier attack against him. In the April 4 broadcast, Ifanov said he hoped to identify his attackers soon with the help of police, the Moscow-based daily Izvestiya reported. Ifanov was referring to a January incident in which a group of unidentified men wearing camouflage attacked him after he filmed them gathering in the center of Aleisk, according to local press reports. After realizing they were being filmed, the men broke Ifanov's camera, destroyed his footage, and severely beat him. During the attack, the men told the journalist, "We warned you that military reconnaissance works here, but you didn't listen," the Novosibirsk State Television and Radio Company quoted Ifanov as saying. The journalist sustained a concussion in the attack and spent several days in the hospital, according to local press reports.

CPJ highlighted violence against Russian journalists in August testimony before the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. "As violence against these messengers goes unpunished, fewer journalists are willing to risk their lives in pursuit of difficult stories, the press is forced to compromise its role as a watchdog, and the public is kept in the dark about important issues," CPJ Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova told the commission.

Ognianova also noted that, as elections approached, authorities were cracking down on opponents with vigor. Special police forces broke up rallies, or "Dissenters' Marches," organized by Other Russia, the opposition coalition led by former world chess champion Garry Kasparov and nationalist writer Eduard Limonov. Journalists who tried to cover the protests were harassed. In March, for example, police detained nine Russian and international journalists as they covered a Dissenters' March in the central Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod. Three of the journalists were beaten. In April, police in St. Petersburg seized thousands of copies of an opposition paper destined to be transported to Moscow ahead of a Dissenters' March planned in the capital the next day. In May, police detained three foreign journalists from leading news outlets as they prepared to fly from a Moscow airport to a Dissenters' March in the southern city of Samara. And on the eve of the December vote, police in the northern city of Arkhangelsk seized the entire press run of the local independent newspaper Arkhangelsky Obozrevatel, the independent radio station Ekho Moskvy reported. The issue carried articles critical of United Russia and local authorities.

In a disturbing move, Putin signed into law a package of amendments expanding the definition of extremism to include even the public discussion of such activity, and giving law enforcement officials broad authority to suspend media outlets that do not comply. Ostensibly designed to fight extremism – including the growing nationalist and neo-Nazi movements – the new measures have already restricted the independent press and critical writers. Ekho Moskvy received 15 letters from the FSB, prosecutors, and media regulators, all warning the station against carrying "extremist" statements. Authorities launched an official probe of prominent political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky, author of the critical 2006 political diary Unloved Country, for making public appeals to extremism. Several regional newspapers faced similar charges and possible closure.

Also disturbing was the resurrection of forced psychiatric confinement – a measure used during Soviet times to silence dissidents. Two cases were particularly egregious. Vladimir Chugunov, founder and editor of the now-defunct newsweekly Chugunka in the town of Solnechnogorsk, was arrested in January on a spurious charge of "threatening to murder or cause serious health damage." He spent more than four months in state custody, shuttling between prison cells, hospital wards, and psychiatric wards. Chugunov had long angered local authorities with articles criticizing the Solnechnogorsk government and judiciary.

Writer Larisa Arap, an activist affiliated with Kasparov's United Civic Front party, was held in a Russian psychiatric hospital for 46 days. The forced hospitalization came after the party's newspaper, Dissenters' March, published her comments on abusive treatment of patients at the Murmansk regional psychiatric hospital in the northern city of Apatity. Arap said hospital personnel tied her to her bed, beat her, tried to smother her with a pillow, and injected her with undisclosed drugs. On August 13, an independent psychiatric evaluation, ordered by Ombudsman for Human Rights Vladimir Lukin, concluded that Arap had been illegally hospitalized. Even so, it took an international outcry, including statements from CPJ, to persuade authorities to honor the independent evaluation and release Arap on August 20.

Provincial authorities used spurious charges such as infringing on copyright law and using counterfeit software to shutter independent and opposition outlets ahead of national elections. In November, just weeks before the parliamentary elections, authorities in Samara suspended publication of the local edition of Novaya Gazeta. Local police raided the paper's bureau, seizing computers and financial documents and placing editor Sergei Kurt-Adzhiyev under criminal investigation for violating copyright law. An earlier raid against the bureau had occurred in May. Although copyright infringement is pervasive in Russia, Kurt-Adzhiyev faced up to six years in prison. The paper had regularly covered the activities of the Other Russia coalition.

Authorities continued to stifle news about Russia's volatile North Caucasus region. To promote an image of stability, Putin elevated Chechnya's notorious prime minister, Ramzan Kadyrov, to president of the Chechen republic in February. Human rights abuses committed by Kadyrov and his military forces have been well documented.

Two reporters who had long covered Russia's North Caucasus for international news outlets were forced to resettle in the United States in the spring after enduring intense official retaliation for their work. Yuri Bagrov and Fatima Tlisova, former correspondents for The Associated Press and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, joined CPJ in speaking to the U.S. Congressional Human Rights Caucus in late June. They told the caucus of harassment, obstruction, and attacks they had endured at the hands of the FSB because of their reporting on civilian abductions, illegal detentions, torture, and human rights abuses by officials in Chechnya and other parts of the North Caucasus.

Imprisonment became a risk once again for critical journalists in Russia. In late year, authorities held three journalists behind bars because of their work: Boris Stomakhin, editor of the monthly newspaper Radikalnaya Politika in Moscow; Anatoly Sardayev, founder and editor of the independent weekly Mordoviya Segodnya in Saransk; and Nikolai Andrushchenko, co-founder and an editor of the weekly newspaper Novy Peterburg in St. Petersburg.


Journalists killed in 2007 in Russia

Ivan Safronov, Kommersant
March 2, 2007, Moscow

Safronov, 51, a former Russian Space Force colonel and a respected military correspondent who covered defense, army, and space issues for the independent business daily Kommersant, fell more than four stories from a staircase window in his apartment building. The following narrative is drawn from CPJ interviews with Safronov's Kommersant colleagues and military experts, and from press reports.

On the day he died, Safronov talked to colleagues and family by phone and made plans with them for later in the day and for the following week. He visited a Moscow doctor for treatment of an ulcer, symptoms of which had recently abated. Safronov then went grocery shopping and took a trolley back home. Around 4 p.m., two university students living in a nearby apartment building heard a thud and saw Safronov on the ground and an open window in the building above. Safronov's groceries were on the landing between the fourth and the fifth floor of his apartment building. He died before help arrived.

The Taganka prosecutor's office in Moscow initially said the death was a suicide. Several days later, prosecutors opened an investigation into what they called "incitement to suicide," a provision of the Russian penal code that is defined as someone provoking a suicide through threats or abusive treatment. In September, prosecutors returned to their initial theory and declared the killing a suicide.

CPJ research shows Safronov had worked on a number of sensitive issues:

  • In late February, Safronov had returned from Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, where he had covered the annual International Defense Exhibition and Conference, a gathering of defense manufacturers. Colleagues said Safronov had called the newsroom from Abu Dhabi with information about a purported Russian sale of fighter jets and anti-aircraft missiles to Syria and Iran. The sale was said to be channeled through Belarus to conceal the origin. Safronov had planned to finish the story when he returned.
  • Three days before his death, Safronov privately told colleagues at a news conference that he had information about an alleged Russian sale to Syria of the surface-to-air missile system Pantsir-S1, the fighter aircraft MiG-29, and the tactical missile Iskandar-E. He said he had been cautioned not to publish the information because of its international implications, but he did not say who had issued the warning.
  • Safronov had been interrogated many times by state security agents for allegedly disclosing state secrets in his articles. He was never formally charged because he was able to demonstrate that he had relied solely on public sources. In December 2006, Safronov angered authorities when he wrote about the third consecutive launch failure of the Bulava intercontinental ballistic missile.

Relatives, friends, and colleagues said Safronov had no reason to commit suicide. He had no personal enemies, no debts, and no life-threatening disease. He had been married for many years, had two adult children, and was expecting his first grandchild. He did not leave a suicide note.

Journalists killed in 2007 in Russia (motive unconfirmed)

Vyacheslav Ifanov, Novoye Televideniye Aleiska
April 5, 2007, Aleisk

Ifanov, a 29-year-old cameraman for the independent television station Novoye Televideniye Aleiska (NTA) in the Siberian city of Aleisk, was found dead in his garage with his car running. On August 4, the Aleisk prosecutor's office ruled that there was no evidence of foul play. An autopsy found that he died from self-induced carbon monoxide poisoning.

The night before he died, Ifanov was featured on the syndicated television news program "Nashi Novosti." He described a January attack against him by unidentified members of a local military reconnaissance unit. In the April 4 broadcast, Ifanov said he hoped to identify his attackers soon with the help of police, the Moscow-based daily Izvestiya reported.

Local press reports quoted Ifanov describing the January 21 attack. Ifanov said he was filming what he thought was a suspicious gathering of men in camouflage gear in the center of Aleisk. The men, seeing Ifanov filming them, assaulted the journalist and broke his camera, he said. During the attack, Ifanov said, the men told him, "We warned you that military reconnaissance works here, but you didn't listen." The journalist sustained a concussion in the attack and spent several days in the hospital, according to local press reports.

Ifanov was found dead on April 5 by a neighbor, who heard the journalist's car running with the garage doors shut. Neighbor Viktor Langolf said Ifanov's body was slumped between his car and one of the garage walls, the Moscow-based news agency Regnum reported. Langolf said the garage doors were locked from the inside, according to local press reports. Police said there were no signs of violence, press reports said.

Sergei Plotnikov, a journalist who investigated the case for the Moscow-based press freedom group Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, said he examined photos of the scene, and they did not reflect signs of a struggle.

Relatives, friends, and colleagues were skeptical Ifanov took his own life, according to local press reports. The autopsy report contained omissions and conflicting information, Izvestiya reported. For example, Izvestiya said, the report placed the body in two different locations in the garage.

On April 4, Ifanov worked until 7 p.m. and then spent the rest of the evening with a friend, Aleksandr Udin, who said the journalist had been in a good mood, according to local press reports. Udin said that the journalist mentioned there was some progress in the January attack but did not elaborate, Izvestiya reported. Ifanov left Udin's house at around 2 a.m. The autopsy said the journalist died about two hours later, Regnum reported.

Local press reports said that Ifanov had received threats prior to his death and was told to withdraw his criminal complaint in the January attack. NTA Director Yevgeny Filippov told CPJ he was unaware of threats against Ifanov.

Copyright notice: © Committee to Protect Journalists. All rights reserved. Articles may be reproduced only with permission from CPJ.

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