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Beat the Press: The Plight of Reporters in Putin’s Russia

3:15 PM, Apr 22, 2011 • By REUBEN F. JOHNSON
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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.

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