Risking All for Press Freedom Russian Journalists Put Their Lives on the Line
A simple glass case stands next to the door leading to the editorial offices of the Moscow-based newspaper Novaya Gazeta. Inside are displayed the newspaper's trophies, including the mobile telephone that former first lady Raisa Gorbachyova gave the paper a decade and a half ago, as well as various awards and certificates.
But the display cabinet also contains shrapnel that was removed from the bodies of war correspondents during surgery, and the computer that investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya used to write her articles. The upper shelf is reserved for the portraits of the victims of contract killings: Politkovskaya, Yuri Shchekochikhin and Igor Domnikov.
Now space will have to be made for two more portraits. They are still hanging on the wall, together with a black ribbon of mourning: a photo of prominent attorney Stanislav Markelov , 34, who represented the newspaper in various trials, and a portrait of Anastasia Baburova, 25, who wrote about Russian fascists for the paper. Neo-Nazis have been celebrating her violent death on the Internet since she was killed last week -- and plotting to hunt down other journalists.
Letters of condolence, including one from French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, lie on a small table. The Russian leadership, however, has had nothing to say about the case.
A masked killer murdered Markelov and Baburova last Monday. It was an execution in broad daylight, in the middle of Moscow's "Golden Mile," a neighborhood of high-priced mansions and old townhouses not far from the Kremlin. Once again Izvestiya, a pro-government daily, was quick to assign blame for the killings to the West.
Meanwhile in the West, doubts are growing as to whether President Dmitry Medvedev's and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's avowed commitment to the rule of law and freedom of the press will ever be more than fancy rhetoric. Conditions in Russia, a member of the Council of Europe, are more like those in Mexico or Pakistan than those in other European countries.
With the exception of countries like Iraq where conditions approach those of a civil war at times, nowhere is the life of a journalist more dangerous than in Russia. And none of the country's 14,000 newspapers has had more victims of violence than Novaya Gazeta.
The newspaper has exposed corruption and the notorious infiltration of government law enforcement organizations by criminal groups. Its reporters have denounced human rights violations in the Caucasus and growing xenophobia. The individuals who contracted last week's double murder likely stem from the milieus of military or intelligence officials, right-wing extremists, Chechens or possibly government bureaucrats whose illicit sources of income are threatened by the newspaper's investigative reporting.
Sixty editors work for Novaya Gazeta, which is partially owned by former President Mikhail Gorbachev and oligarch Alexander Lebedev . Reporters at the paper know that they put their lives at risk whenever they agree to cover a hot story. Because of this risk, Lebedev has requested that Russian intelligence provide them with pistols for self-defense.
"Nowadays when I come home from work in the evening and see men standing around on my street, I feel afraid," says junior editor Elena Kostyuchenko, 21. She, like her murdered colleague Baburova, comes from a small town.
Russia is not China and certainly not North Korea. There are courageous newspapers and radio stations throughout the country that sharply criticize powerful businesspeople and politicians. Last year the Moscow-based Glasnost Foundation counted 1,450 cases in which journalists were beaten and threatened, editorial offices searched and photos confiscated. Five reporters were killed and two are still missing.
Kostyuchenko writes about guest workers and refugees. She is currently fighting to put behind bars those who arranged for an attack on journalist Mikhail Beketov. Stanislav Markelov, the attorney murdered on Jan. 20, represented Beketov's family.
As the editor-in-chief of a local newspaper in the Moscow suburb of Khimki, Beketov, in his early 50s, has sharply criticized corruption within the local administration. He became the leader of a movement protesting the construction of a highway from Moscow to St. Petersburg, because a stretch of forest near Khimki up to 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) wide is to be cut down to make way for the road.
Russian "bisnesmeny" (businessmen) are already lining up to build shopping centers, service stations and casinos in the deforested zone, which promises to become a goldmine. "Because of Beketov's resistance, a lot of money has been up in the air for the past year, money that will not simply fall into the pockets of local officials," says the deputy director of an environmental agency. This, he says, has angered some "very influential people."
Unknown assailants killed Beketov's dog and set his car on fire. Then, on a clear November morning, neighbors found the journalist lying in front of his house. He had been beaten so severely that doctors had to amputate one of his legs and several fingers, and they are still fighting for his life today.
Kostyuchenko and journalists with other Moscow newspapers continued to draw the public's attention to the near-murder until the local police, which has close ties to the district administrator, was taken off the case. The chief public prosecutor has since taken control of the investigation. Kostyuchenko calls it "a partial victory, but nothing more."
Her colleague Elena Milachina, 31, is sitting in the next room behind a mountain of research documents. In May 2000, thugs killed her former boss, Igor Domnikov, a special projects editor at the paper, with three hammer blows to the head in front of his apartment on the outskirts of Moscow. When questioned by police, the murderers, part of a notorious organized crime organization, revealed the names of those who had ordered the attack. They included the former deputy governor of Lipetsk, a province in central Russia.
Domnikov had disclosed that this civil servant had misused government funds to speculate in banks, had had his apartment renovated at the taxpayers' expense and controlled certain markets. But when the Domnikov case came to trial, the deputy governor was only questioned as a witness, not as a suspect. He told the court that he had only hired the killers so that he could "talk" to the journalist. The criminal gang, however, was known for its brutality, and for the fact that it had cut off the ears and fingers of the 23 people it had already killed. The deputy governor, a minor oligarch, now owns the largest meat processing plant in Lipetsk.
Markelov, the murdered lawyer, and journalist Milachina had been looking into ways to finally bring the former deputy governor under lock and key. "Our government could do so much," says Milachina, "but instead of protecting citizens, the courts, police, parliament and the controlled press merely protect criminals and the corrupt government."
Markelov, a lawyer specializing in journalism and civil rights, was unwilling to accept the status quo. In 2006, he founded the Rule of Law Institute and began to divulge sensitive information to the press, even about well-known figures. It was through his efforts that Germans learned about a secret order issued by the then Russian interior minister, Boris Gryzlov, which authorized the police to establish internment camps (the story was reported in SPIEGEL in 2005). Gryzlov is now the speaker of the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament.
Markelov told SPIEGEL about the complaints he had filed with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, and that he regretted that the European judges could not issue arrest warrants in Russia. "The murderers are among us," he said at the time. According to Markelov, Russian law was as far behind European law "as African tribal law." At a rally to protest "political terror" shortly before his death -- in which, as usual, few members of the opposition took part -- Markelov said: "I am tired of seeing the names of my acquaintances appear as victims in the crime statistics. We need protection against the power of the mafia and the security authorities, which are often in the pockets of criminals."
A weak light bulb illuminates the desk in Markelov's former office. Next to an old computer monitor are documents from a trial that brought fame to Markelov, who was 26 at the time, as well as ruthless enemies -- and may have played a role in his murder.
In March 2000, Yuri Budanov, a Russian army officer, tortured and murdered Elsa Kungaeva, an 18-year-old Chechen woman. The case triggered such strong public outrage that a military court sentenced Budanov to a 10-year prison sentence, but he was released on parole on Jan. 15, 2009 -- over Markelov's objections. Markelov was the only Russian among a group of lawyers that represented Chechens, and Budanov and other staunchly nationalistic officers hated him for it.
Vyacheslav Izmailov, a star reporter for Novaya Gazeta and the successor of murdered journalist Anna Politkovskaya, is pursuing another lead, which also leads to Chechnya. A former military officer who commanded a battalion in the Chechen war that specialized in liberating hostages, Izmailov is an expert on the region. It was revelations about a prisoner that stirred the wrath of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov against the reporter and his attorney, Markelov. Izmailov had published an interview with a Chechen Kadyrov had ordered arrested and mistreated in a mountain village. Markelov represented the victim in court.
Last week, the Chechen despot posthumously awarded Markelov a medal "for services to the Chechen Republic." Markelov had, after all, represented the family of Elsa Kungaeva, the Chechen woman murdered by Yuri Budanov. But Caucasus experts in Russian intelligence treat this as a possible red herring. "For Kadyrov's people, contract killings of political enemies are routine," says a Russian colonel.
Markelov is dead. Kadyrov has brought a lawsuit against Izmailov, but so far he has failed to achieve a conviction.
Izmailov has already suffered and recovered from a stroke. He is a diminutive man with darting eyes and a big heart for victims of violence and despotism. He has a daughter and two grandchildren. "Nevertheless, I will continue to write about the truth," he says. "And if I am ever afraid, it will only be in the last seconds of my life -- when I am looking my killer in the eye."