The recent spate of attacks on Russian journalists has sparked indignation in Western mainstream media and rightly so. These attacks are horrendous acts that cry out for condemnation and real action. That said, all condemnations are not equal in accuracy or honesty.
Critics want Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to act aggressively to end the perceived, and sometimes real, impunity for the perpetrators of such crimes. Others explicitly claim or imply, with no evidence available, that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and/or his allies were directly or indirectly involved in such attacks since he came to power in 2000.
Both types of critic often treat violence against journalists as an indicator of Russia’s authoritarianism. The prevalence of media critiques of Russia in this regard gives the impression that such crimes are somewhat peculiar to it. In contrast to China, Cuba, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and many other countries, including some with which we have working relations, independent journalists are forbidden or far more restricted than they are in Russia. These countries get considerably less attention than does Russia, where many thousands of investigative journalists ply their trade.
Comparisons also demonstrate that among countries that have independent journalists, Russia has far from the worst record per capita in terms of journalists murdered. Further it shows that contract and political murders are notoriously hard to solve whether in Moscow, Latin America, North America or Europe.
The number of unsolved contract journalists’ murders in Russia during Boris Yeltsin’s presidency clearly outpaced the 20 such crimes during Putin’s eight years as president, and the two of President Medvedev’s tenure.
Russia’s 1990s grew homegrown criminals who rose to power, both politically and in business, quickly learned to kill to get what they wanted during that wild capitalist period. They were/are rich, corrupt––and intent on protecting their acquisitions and others’ properties. Almost all contract murders in Russia (including journalists) are “ordered” by Moscow and regional criminal groups and/or corrupt officials whose lives or operations are exposed by local journalists. Quite a few of these criminal elements are located far from Moscow and engaged in purely local political and business battles. All have unknown hit men to carry out their dirty work, making these crimes nearly impossible to solve.
Of the 20 Russian journalists’ murdered since 2000, Paul Klebnikov, the Forbes journalist, wrote best-selling books exposing Boris Berezovsky, other wealthy oligarchs, and the chief of the Chechen mafia. Klebnikov was known to be rather sympathetic toward Putin. His was obviously a contract crime, yet the western media chose to implicate Putin.
It is patently false that none of the twenty murder cases have been solved. Six, including the recent murder of Novaya gazeta journalist Anastasia Baburova together with human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov in January 2009, have been solved, though not all the ensuing indictments ended in convictions. Baburova apparently was not a target at all, but rather was killed when trying to stop Markelov’s murderers. Markelov had been an enemy of the neo-fascist camp for years; two members of the prominent neo-fascist group ‘Russkii Obraz’ have been charged with this crime. His murder was feted on neo-fascist organizations’ websites, according to anti-fascist watchdog, the Sova Center. According to Sova, Russian prosecutions of ultra-rightist crimes are on the rise, and the number of such crimes is on the decline since 2009. Yet this has been virtually ignored by mainstream media in the west.
The murders of Klebnikov, Novaya Gazeta’s Anna Politkovskaya, and Yurii Shchekochikhin, who was also a State Duma deputy, are the only murders of federal significance left unsolved and unpunished. The last two cases have been extended and reopened, respectively, in recent months.
Although the record suggests Putin downplayed the killing of journalists and may have taken too few steps to put an end to the impunity surrounding many cases, no evidence has surfaced to indicate involvement by Putin or close associates in any of these crimes. The only possible perpetrator who could be considered politically close to Putin is Chechen President Ramzan Karyrov. However, the Putin-Kadyrov relationship is not at all cozy. It is more a marriage of political necessity driven by fears of anarchy and increased terrorism in the Caucasus region if a Chechen leader with a less heavy hand and less influence in this jihad-plagued region were brought to power. The courageous Anna Politkovskaya, whose murder still is not solved, was despised by Chechen leadership and Russian neo-fascists for her attacks on them in Russian media. It remains likely that one of these two groups perpetrated this high-profile, unpunished crime.
Since President Medvedev’s inauguration, the Russian leadership has taken a quite different approach when journalists are murdered or beaten. When Markelov and Baburova were killed, Medvedev immediately sent condolences. He invited Novaya gazeta’s chief patron, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and the paper’s editor to the Kremlin, and then gave an interview to this opposition paper. Similarly, Medvedev emerged within hours after the recent attack on Kommersant journalist Oleg Kashin strongly condemning the crime and declaring that it would be solved and the perpetrators brought to justice. Medvedev’s recent separation of the Investigative Committee from the General Prosecutor’s Office gives indication that he plans to reverse Russia’s less than sterling record of solving such crimes. All this deserves reporting, and readers deserve the whole story and full context on this subject.
Gordon M. Hahn is Senior Researcher at the Monterey Terrorism Research and Education Program and Visiting Assistant Professor in the Graduate School of International Policy Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies, Monterey, California;Analyst and Consultant for Russia Other Points of View – Russia Media Watch; and Senior Researcher, Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group. Dr Hahn is author of two well-received books, Russia’s Revolution From Above (Transaction, 2002) and Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), which was named an outstanding title of 2007 by Choice magazine. He has authored hundreds of articles in scholarly journals and other publications on Russian, Eurasian and international politics and publishes the Islam, Islamism, and Politics in Eurasia Report (IIPER) at HYPERLINK "http://www.miis.edu/academics/faculty/ghahn/report" http://www.miis.edu/academics/faculty/ghahn/report.
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