Global Economics

Who Is Killing Russian Journalists?


Russia is among the deadliest countries in the world for reporters, and of the 13 contract-style killings since 2000, not one has been solved

Each week, Rimma Maximova makes a phone call to the prosecutor's office in St. Petersburg. And each week she hears the same thing. Staff tell her they have no more information about her son Maxim's disappearance.

Maxim Maximov was her only child. He became a talented, methodical, and respected investigative journalist. At the time he went missing, aged 41, he was a special correspondent for the St. Petersburg weekly magazine Gorod. Before that he'd been a leading reporter for the Agency for Journalistic Investigations.

But one day in June 2004, Maximov left his apartment apparently planning to be out for only an hour or two. He never returned. No trace of him has ever been found, and no one has been arrested for abducting or killing him.

He is one of more than a dozen journalists believed to have been murdered in Russia because of their work since 2000, the year President Vladimir Putin came to power.

REPORTERS TRACK COLLEAGUE'S KILLER

Less than two weeks ago, Ivan Safronov, a reporter for the independent daily Kommersant who covered military affairs, fell four stories to his death from a window in his Moscow apartment building. Safronov had been questioned several times by the Federal Security Service in connection with his work but was never charged with anything, according to the Associated Press. Early police statements that suggest his death was a suicide have been rejected by Safronov's co-workers.

For her part, Rimma Maximova says she lost hope long ago, but her weekly phone call has become a habit. She says that over the more than two years since Maxim disappeared it has crept slowly into her routine, even though the inquiry has made no progress, and she knows what she will be told even before she dials the number.

Maximov was last seen on 29 June 2004. It was several days before colleagues and friends realized he was missing and sent word to his mother, who was staying in Moscow.

"I was waiting for him to call and he didn't," Maximova recalled. "He knew I was in Moscow. I called my friend; she hadn't heard from him for a week. I went straight to St. Petersburg and to the police. We opened up his flat and his computer was on, his radio and recorder were on, and it looked as if he'd only gone out for a few minutes."

Maximov's former colleagues at the Agency for Journalistic Investigations rapidly began their own inquiries. They knew that Maximov specialized in probing organized crime and corruption in high places.

But because Maximov was something of a loner, and because he was often digging into several cases at once, his fellow journalists faced a huge challenge in their detective work. They had to go through piles of paperwork trying to locate an investigation by Maximov that might have led to his death.

"Months passed before we found the answer, and it came to us by sheer accident as we were - for the umpteenth time - flipping through the pages of his voluminous files," said Alexander Gorshkov, the agency's deputy director.

Having checked out several investigations and found no leads, he says, they alighted on a probe he was making into a police anti-corruption squad. In an article he wrote shortly before he vanished, Maximov had alleged that instead of solving real crimes, the squad sometimes set up phony cases using a police stooge, who was in on the scam, to offer bribes.

"He published an article about their methods, and their methods were to provoke people into giving bribes," Maximova said. "They created a situation where a person would give a bribe and then other police units would turn up and discover it. And that's how they had a very high success rate in tackling corruption."

Gorshkov and his team learned that on the day Maximov disappeared, he'd been phoned out of the blue by a man claiming to offer him freelance work. The caller had told Maximov he wanted to set up a magazine and wanted him to write for it.

But there was one thing Maximov didn't know - the caller whom he agreed to meet that day was the man who, according to Maximov's investigation, had been offering bribes in the phony corruption cases set up by the police unit he had been investigating.

"NO BODY, NO CASE"

The team at the Agency for Journalistic Investigations believes that Maximov was murdered in an apartment in St. Petersburg, the same day he disappeared, after being invited there for a meeting and that his body was then removed by car and buried in woods outside the city. They also believe they know who killed him.

"Our sources described the place where he was buried to us, but it's a remote and densely forested area," Gorshkov said. "We made several trips there but have not yet been able to find the grave."

Gorshkov says the Agency for Journalistic Investigations also printed the name of the alleged police stooge in the corruption cases on its website. But the only response of the authorities was to scold Gorshkov.

He says he was summoned to the St. Petersburg prosecutor's office for questioning. "They told me indignantly that I did wrong by disclosing the identity of the police agent to the general public," he said.

The alleged police agent, who is also an actor, is sometimes cast in crime drama series on Russian television.

The agency passed all the information they had uncovered to prosecutors, hoping that arrests would follow in connection with Maximov's disappearance.

But that has not happened. Ivan Kondrat, head of the Northwestern Federal District General Prosecutor's Office, has said that Maximov's disappearance is still being "actively investigated" and that no suspects have been detained.

However in the wake of the corruption investigation begun by Maximov, three senior police officers in the anti-corruption unit are awaiting trial.

"Our office ... has charged Lieutenant Colonel Mikhail Smirnov and majors Lev Pyatov and Andrei Bochurov with ... entrapment and giving false evidence," Kondrat said.

But Kondrat made it clear the officers have not been charged in connection with the disappearance or presumed death of Maximov.

So how does journalist Gorshkov see the failure of the authorities to find those who abducted and possibly killed Maximov?

"On the one hand we can say there is an obvious shortage of competent professionals in Russian law enforcement," Gorshkov said. "And on the other hand the people who we suspect are responsible for Maxim's murder apparently have connections and contacts strong enough to block the investigation. ... And, as Russian detectives put it, ‘No body, no case.' "

13 KILLINGS, ZERO CONVICTIONS

In its annual report, released in autumn 2006, the Committee to Protect Journalists called Russia "the third-deadliest country in the world for journalists over the past 15 years, behind only the conflict-ridden countries of Iraq and Algeria."

The most recent statistics collected by this respected international organization show that 42 journalists have been killed in Russia since 1992, many in contract-style executions. The vast majority these killings remain unsolved.

In a just-released report, the Brussels-based International News Safety Institute says 88 people working for the media died violently in Russia since 1996, second only to Iraq.

Most alarmingly, of 13 contract-style killings of journalists committed in Russia since Putin came to power, not one has resulted in any convictions or prosecutions.

Most journalists who have been murdered were investigating high-profile corruption cases and found themselves on the wrong side of the Kremlin.

"The fact that the journalists who were killed were almost exclusively critics of the Kremlin does not on its own make the Kremlin responsible," said Kirill Kabanov, chairman of the Russian Anti-Corruption Committee, a nongovernmental organization based in Moscow.

"But the fact that investigations of these murders always stall and that nobody has been brought to justice shows either that the state is too weak to mount an uncompromised and transparent investigation or that it has a hand in the crimes."

But Mikhail Grishankov, deputy head of the State Duma's security committee, blames Russia's pervasive corruption.

"Killing is a preferred method of solving a problem in a corrupt society, and unfortunately, it is still a problem in Russia," Grishankov said. "But not only journalists are getting killed, prominent politicians and bankers fall victims as well.

"It is not fair to point the finger at the Kremlin. High-profile killings are the toughest to investigate in any country, not only in Russia. Take, for instance, the murders of [Swedish Prime Minister] Olof Palme and [U.S. President] John Kennedy."

WHAT'S THE POINT?

When Anna Politkovskaya, the outspoken reporter and uncompromising critic of the government, was gunned down in the staircase of her apartment building in Moscow on 7 October, she became the fifth journalist that her publication, opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, has lost over the past decade.

Sergei Sokolov, deputy editor of Novaya Gazeta, said many of Anna's colleagues feel discouraged.

"After we learned that she was killed, the overall dark mood and depression was overwhelming," he recalls. "Our veterans then started to wonder whether we ought to close down the newspaper altogether. They were saying that our headquarters, once a bustling newsroom, now feels more like a funeral home. We seriously considered closing down, and it was entirely owing to the pressure from our younger staff that we made a decision to continue coming out."

Novaya Gazeta staff have been depressed not just because they have lost some of their brightest talent and closest friends. They have begun to doubt whether the effort they are making - risking their lives to tell their readers more than officials want them to know - is worth it anymore.

"The journalists don't feel that the audiences care very much," Sokolov said.

Though unsolved, Politkovskaya's death by shooting was rather straightforward. Others have been more complicated.

In July 2003, Yury Shchekochikhin, another journalist from Novaya Gazeta, and a member of the State Duma from the liberal Yabloko party, died after a short and mysterious illness. His colleagues and friends are convinced he was poisoned. His symptoms were in some ways remarkably similar to those of Alexander Litvinenko, who died in London in November. But prosecutors have not so far opened an investigation into the reporter's death.

Shchekochikhin fell ill suddenly during a trip to Ryazan to meet members of the local anti-corruption committee. With the journalist on that trip was Kabanov, of the Russian Anti-Corruption Committee.

On the car journey back to Moscow, Kabanov said, Shchekochikhin began to look strange and feel unwell.

"He complained about fatigue, and red blotches began to appear on his skin," Kabanov recalled. The next day they talked by phone. "He told me he was suffering severe vomiting and feeling extremely ill.

"After that his family and colleagues told me he'd been admitted to the hospital. His fever became extremely high. ... He lost consciousness. All his internal organs began collapsing one by one. Then almost all of his skin was severely damaged. Then he lost almost all his hair. Finally, he fell into a coma. He died within about two weeks ... on 3 July."

During the trip to Ryazan, Kabanov had noticed the journalist taking some large pills.

"He told me the medication was prescribed for him by a doctor at the Central Clinical Hospital, also known as 'the Kremlin hospital,' which caters to state officials," Kabanov said.

Shchekochikhin was taken to the same clinic after falling ill.

"Yury was assigned to the clinic as a lawmaker of the State Duma," Kabanov said. "The clinic is part of the presidential administration and all its activities are monitored by the [Federal Security Service]," Russia's secret police.

Kabanov, a former Federal Security Service anti-corruption officer, said he called a contact from one of the bureau's secret laboratories researching poisons. The expert, with more than 20 years of experience, said Shchekochikhin was most likely poisoned with thallium, a highly toxic metal.

"His hair was falling out in patches, and his skin was peeling off - he lost almost all his skin in the end," Kabanov recalled. "His internal organs were collapsing one after another." Informally doctors suggested the illness was an allergic reaction. But experts failed to establish an exact cause of death. And no criminal investigation was launched.

After Shchekochikhin died, Kabanov continued, several men in plain clothes came to his house and, with no explanation, collected all his medications. "To me, and many other people who happen to know about this, it looked like nothing but cleaning the scene, as if they were there to cover up something serious," Kabanov said.

CHOOSING THE QUIETER, SAFER LIFE

Garry Kasparov, one of the leaders of the opposition coalition Other Russia, says fear has undermined the integrity of the journalistic community in Russia.

"The vicious little maggot, called inner censorship, is sneaking in again," he told a 1 February press conference. "Fear makes such a good soil for self-censorship. There are so many things to be afraid of now, so many forms of persecution and intimidation to choose from - financial, physical, or even judicial.

"Even organizing a news conference is a problem for us. When agencies hear my name, or the name of our other leader, Eduard Limonov, they promptly turn us down," Kasparov added.

Once regarded a major force in society, the Russian media feel toothless these days.

Tatyana Protasenko, a senior researcher at the Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said less than 10 percent of Russian journalists believe that the mass media in the country are powerful enough to force the authorities to respond.

Vladimir Osinsky, a senior lecturer in the journalism department of St. Petersburg State University, says a frequent complaint he hears from his former students is the lack of response to their work from those involved in decision-making.

"Stories on social issues, intended to help people, provoke no reaction from the authorities, thus making reporters feel worthless," Osinsky said. "The result is that journalists are trying to avoid writing about things they know should be changed but cannot help in changing. Compared to physical killings, it seems like a minor complaint hardly worth mentioning, but it makes so many strong and talented people depressed."

Renowned Italian journalist and writer Mario Corti, a former director of the Russian service of Radio Liberty, is convinced that although the field of independent journalism in Russia is shrinking, it is worth fighting to save what remains.

"What I see now is some media professionals making compromising decisions; stepping back from their principles to get higher ratings, avoiding controversial subjects, and generally choosing a quieter, safer life and perhaps better money for themselves," he said. "But as long as space remains for the free press - and this space still exists in Russia - journalists and editors need to strive to expand it. Undoubtedly there will be risks involved but there is no other way to preserve the field of independent journalism. Journalists themselves as a professional community share the responsibility for what is happening to the free media."

And official investigations into the deaths of journalists who challenge the state or the forces of law and order are surrounded by an extra layer of secrecy, say friends and relatives of victims.

Rimma Maximova said all she hears is "no new information." And Yury Shchekochikhin's son, Konstantin, says the family is still struggling to get access to vital medical files. Shchekochikhin's relatives and friends have also been battling to get clearance to conduct an independent medical examination of the journalist's body but have been repeatedly rebuffed.

Novaya Gazeta has been trying unsuccessfully to get the General Prosecutor's Office to launch an investigation into Shchekochikhin's death. In January, officials turned down the request again.

Next week Maximova will call the prosecutor's office once again about her son.

"It's very difficult to describe the feelings of fear and helplessness that I have to this very day, the sense that I can't help him," she said. "Maxim was an amazing journalist and he was a decent man. I would like to ask for more to be done. I want it to become more public. I would just like to ask that his fellow journalists should not be silent."


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