Beat the Press: The Plight of Reporters in Putin’s Russia
3:15 PM, Apr 22, 2011 • By REUBEN F. JOHNSON
Kiev – At around 10 a.m. Moscow time on March 23, the world saw another example of just how dangerous it is to be an investigative reporter in Russia. Sergei Topol, a 55-year-old political journalist, was beaten by two men outside of his apartment building at 1 Kotelnicheskaya Naberezhnaya—one of the prestigious Stalin-era, wedding cake-style buildings, located not far from the Kremlin. He was hospitalized with numerous bruises and a concussion.
Topol’s experience with “Beat the Press,” an increasingly popular activity in today’s Russia, is mild compared to that of some of his colleagues. Last fall, 30-year-old Oleg Kashin, a reporter for the influential Moscow daily Kommersant, was beaten with metal rods near his apartment home in central Moscow. The bludgeoning he suffered was so severe that he was in coma for five days and barely survived.
Russia has been one of the most dangerous places for journalists to live and work since the beginning of the 1990s, with some independent international organizations placing the total number of deaths to date at more than 200. A 2007 report by the International News Safety Institute calculated that in the previous 10 years more journalists had died violent deaths in Russia than in any other country in the world with the exception of Iraq.
In 1994, I was visiting at the apartment of a friend in Moscow who was a senior design engineer at one of Russia’s more prestigious missile and space systems. Although we were both in the aerospace business, most of our talk was generally about our other favorite subject: jazz. We could spend hours debating whose rendering of a particular song was better and were involved in one of those Frank Sinatra vs. Nat King Cole discussions when we heard a news broadcast about the death of Moskovsky Komsomolets reporter Dmitri Kholodov.
My friend was shocked. “Kholodov interviewed me himself in this very room not long ago,” he told me. “What is happening to this country?”
Kholodov had been working for more than a year on a series of stories exposing corruption in the Russian military. Earlier that day he had collected an attaché case from the left luggage section at a Moscow train station, having been told it contained a cache of documents revealing criminality in the highest ranks of the armed forces and Ministry of Defense.
Instead, the attaché case was booby-trapped with a bomb triggered to go off when the latches were released. He was killed when it exploded as he opened it back at his office.
Kholodov’s death was a watershed in the history of post-Soviet Russia because it was the first time (although certainly not the last) that a Russian journalist was targeted for elimination because of a story he was working on. Kholodov had been tracking the misuse of funds allocated for the resettlement of Russian troops who had been stationed in East German. As part of the German reunification agreement with Moscow, the German government allocated funds to pay for apartments to be constructed in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and elsewhere to house the Soviet occupation troops returning home.
Not surprisingly, a lot of this money ended up in the pockets of senior military officials. This corruption reportedly went as high as the then-Defense Minister, General Pavel Grachev. His activities included the use of military assets to transport stolen Mercedes-Benzes back to Russia, earning him the nickname “Pasha Mercedes.”
But there is a difference in the attacks on journalists of recent years and those of the 1990s. Kholodov and others were murdered or attacked because they were set to expose blatant criminality. More recent incidents, such as the 2006 murder of Anna Politkovskaya, have been political assassinations or warnings—as in the case of Topol’s and Kashin’s beatings—to stay away from covering subjects that might embarrass those in power.
Topol’s crime was that he had written a series of stories in 2008 stating that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin would leave his wife for a 27-year-old Olympic gymnast, Alina Kabayeva. Shortly thereafter, Putin (while holding a press conference with Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, another politician with a penchant for women a fraction of his age) said, “I have always disliked those who, with their infected noses and erotic fantasies, break into other people’s private affairs.”
That was all it took for the paper where Topol was employed, Moskovsky Korrespondent, to be suddenly closed down. The paper’s billionaire owner, Aleksandr Lebedev, claimed he had shut the publication because it was “losing money.” Of course, the paper had been in the red for some time and there had been no word of its impending closure on these grounds. It wasn't like the losses were making a dent in Lebedev's fortune.
No, Putin’s voice carries weight, and the paper had to go. Lebedev also felt it necessary to atone for the sins of his reporter. Possibly imagining a fate similar to that of another one-time billionaire who incurred Putin’s wrath, Mikhail Khordokovsky (who is currently rotting in a Siberian gulag on trumped-up charges) Lebedev turned on his employee—calling Topol’s stories about Putin and Kabayeva “nonsense.”
Despite having unlimited manpower and resources to tail journalists who are poking around on the “wrong” stories, tap their phones, intercept their emails, and generally keep them under round-the-clock surveillance, the Russian police and security services suddenly become deaf, dumb, blind, and incompetent when these same journalists are attacked or murdered. No arrests have yet been made in either the Topol or Kashin beatings, despite the latter incident having been caught on a surveillance camera.
Nor are those paid to “protect and to serve” in much of a hurry to collect evidence and arrest suspects for prosecution. And when cases do go to trial, the judiciary, which is ruthlessly efficient about putting away those whom the Putin regime has targeted (the aforementioned Khordokovsky being the poster child for this type of railroaded justice), tends to go wobbly.
Conviction rates for journalists murdered as a course of random, non-political violent crime not related to their work is better than 90 percent. But put someone on trial for whacking a reporter who was about to expose or embarrass some high-ranking personage and the conviction rate drops to less than 50 per cent. Kholodov’s accused killers were put on trial and acquitted—twice. Politkovskaya’s alleged murders were also all acquitted in February 2009.
It may be less than shocking to learn that the judge who presided over the second trial and acquittal of Kholodov’s murderers, Yevgeniy Zubov, was also the judge in the trial of those charged with killing Politkovskaya. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, none of the cases of the 14 journalists murdered in Russia since 2000 (the year Putin became president) have been solved, and “13 bear the marks of contract hits.”
During the economic and social chaos of the early 1990s in Russia more than one Moscow resident tell me that what the country needed was a “Russian Pinochet” who could sort out the mess the country was in, restore order and revive the economy. I reminded them that Pinochet’s rule in Chile was not so benign—people disappeared, were imprisoned and murdered, and newspapers forced to stop publishing. “Oh, that’s okay,” they would say. “If there were a Russian Pinochet he would only close down the papers that I do not like and get rid of the people I do not fancy.” I wonder if those people feel the same way today.