Russia's Harsh Press Climate
by Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Although Boris Yeltsin won the presidential election, the Russian media, which unabashedly backed the president, lost. That's the view of most American journalists, and some liberals in Moscow. Is it just?

Once lauded as the most democratic institution in society, Russia's fourth estate is having to prove itself all over again amid charges of bias and lack of professionalism. The issues aren't just credibility or crying wolf about communism, but a chronic dependency on government handouts or private investment by business groups transparently close to power, and a more insidious tendency toward self-censorship to avoid trouble with anyone. In a year-end article in the weekly newspaper Kommersant (The Merchant), 16 journalists were interviewed about what they had been afraid to write in 1996. Some feared provoking libel suits, others avoided writing about the mafia or government leaders, and some refrained from criticizing their colleagues. One journalist said his worst fear was writing two words: his first name and his last name. Indeed, few detractors of the Russian press appreciate the difficult, and at times even frightening, climate for news-gatherers in the heart of the former Soviet Union.

Moscow's television and newspaper reporters have impressed the world with their hard-hitting coverage of controversial topics, but little is known about the incredible persistence they need to perform their jobs. While a new generation of inquisitive journalists has emerged since the 1991 failed coup that brought down the Communist system, the philosophy-and even the identity-of many of the people who control the media has not changed.

Throughout the Chechen conflict, Russian troops failed to honor press credentials and hindered journalists particularly during the worst battles, jamming satellite transmissions, exposing film, destroying equipment, and even firing on their cars from checkpoints or gunships. In a modern twist on the notion of "the pen is mightier than the sword," a soldier once seized a reporter's satellite phone, saying, "Those things are more dangerous than weapons." A correspondent from the independent NTV had to disguise herself as a Chechen peasant, hiding a video camera in the folds of her long garments, and even rode on horseback over the hills to foil numerous military barriers designed to keep out the press.

In 1995, the Yeltsin government first threatened to revoke NTV's license because of its unflinching coverage of the carnage, then tried to prosecute a journalist for interviewing a Chechen leader. NTV depends on the government for access to state-owned satellite transmitters, and originally shared the frequency for Channel 4 with state-owned television. NTV kept up its grim newscasts from Chechnya but seemed to soften at least the anti-Yeltsin rhetoric when its chairman, Igor Malashenko, joined the president's campaign as a media adviser. Many observers believed that Malashenko was rewarded for excellent service when, after his victory, Yeltsin decreed all of Channel 4 for NTV's use. Quipped Moscow News, "The most statist television company became the most independent in its judgments and the opposite, the station with no relationship to the government whatsoever, became the most tame."

Last year, the gas conglomerate Gazprom, once run by Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, bought 30 percent of NTV's shares, possibly giving the station more latitude through increased private investment, but creating other kinds of problems. Gazprom itself is still 40 percent state-owned, and run by Chernomyrdin's cronies. (Investment from Most-Bank financial group, close to the mayor of Moscow, could provide some counterweight in Moscow politics, so dependent on individual charismatic leaders. So far, however, all the investors back Yeltsin.)

Independent television, radio, and print media have generally thrived in Russia since 1991. But paradoxically, the press under Yeltsin's administration has suffered its most brutal attacks since the Stalin era. Despite the Yeltsin government's reliance on the media's support, and regardless of the media's proximity to power, the government has failed to properly investigate and prosecute the murders of journalists, let alone track down the sources of myriad threats against journalists from government offices and from the underworld.

The Committee to Protect Journalists has confirmed that since 1994, at least 13 journalists have been assassinated in the Russian Federation, and 8 are currently missing. Some of those who have disappeared are presumed dead, including American free-lance photojournalist Andrew Shumack, last seen in Grozny in July 1995. These numbers are comparable to the journalists' death toll under the world's worst regimes. It seems counterintuitive that the man whom the Russian press supported as the guardian of its freedoms could be in any way responsible for this phenomenon. Yet by his government's inaction in pursuing justice for the murders, and his failure to galvanize law-enforcement agencies to protect journalists from coercion, Yeltsin has effectively signaled that enemies of the press may act-even kill-with impunity.

Attacks on the press do not emanate from the president's office, although the Kremlin might occasionally prevent the peskier reporters from coming to official press conferences, or fire a state television executive like Russian State Television's Oleg Poptsov, who was dismissed in 1996 after publishing memoirs in which he was critical of the president. But violence against journalists does stem from Yeltsin's lack of control over the "power ministries" (defense, armed forces, police and internal troops, security, and counterintelligence) and from their failure, in turn, to control both their own rank-and-file and various violent groups in society.

After the elections, a much ballyhooed "clean sweep" of corrupt ministries by then-security chief Alexander Lebed-himself a general-was no substitute for the institutionalized civilian oversight of a free press. Nor were parliamentary hearings into military corruption-encouraged by Yeltsin's post-election effort to reform the military-a substitute for independent investigative journalism. Such efforts did nothing to address the inherent dangers faced by journalists whose probing of such sensitive topics as corruption in the military, law enforcement, or business has led to their colleagues' deaths in mafia-style contract killings. In 1996 alone, at least two journalists were murdered near their homes and four were assassinated in Chechnya (not accidentally killed in crossfire), apparently in connection with their work. Several more suffered brutal beatings and others narrowly escaped assaults or endured anonymous threats.

In 1995, Natalya Alyakina, a correspondent for the German news service RUFA, was shot dead after being waved through a checkpoint during the Chechen hostage-taking crisis in Budyonnovsk near the Chechen border. Following a bungled investigation, an Interior Ministry soldier was convicted in July 1996 on the lesser charge of "involuntary manslaughter through misuse of firearms," and given a suspended sentence of two and a half years. Yeltsin and other high officials failed to make good on their original, highly publicized promises to obtain justice in this case as a deterrent to military abuses.

In March 1996, Nadezhda Chaikova, a prominent war correspondent for the weekly Obshchaya Gazeta who was known for her exposés of Russian military atrocities and her close contacts with the Chechen resistance, was found murdered execution-style outside the Chechen village of Gekhi. Russian federal troops, angered at Chaikova's videotaping of Samashki, a village they had demolished, were suspects. Chechen leaders, acting on rumors spread by the KGB's successor, the Federal Security Service (FSB), that Chaikova was a spy, may have ordered the killing. The federal government never investigated the murder. An inquiry begun by Chechen prosecutors was transferred to the North Caucasus prosecutor's office, where it has stalled.

In August, in an incident eerily similar to Alyakina's killing, Ramzan Khadzhiev, ORT's North Caucasus bureau chief, said to be the subject of past threats from Chechen fighters, was shot dead after he had shown his journalist's credentials and had been waved through a checkpoint outside Grozny. The shots came from armored vehicles; Khadzhiev's wife and son, traveling with him, were unhurt. Another passenger gave testimony, aired on NTV, that Russian troops were responsible. No investigation has been launched, and ORT has not pursued any public inquiry. Clearly, the largely symbolic punishment of Alyakina's killer and his superiors sent a message to the armed forces that the government tolerates such actions.

The military is notorious for coercive treatment of journalists, and not only in war zones. Izvestia disclosed in May 1996 that military prosecutors and other authorities had forced its correspondents in Moscow and elsewhere to "share information." A Moskovsky Komsomolets journalist, Yulya Kalinina, suffered anonymous threats and a break-in at her apartment after publishing articles in the newsmagazine Itogi and in Obshchaya Gazeta on officers' abuses of power, such as the use of conscripts to build villas. The Minister of Construction subsequently filed a lawsuit against Kalinina over her exposé of misspent Chechen reconstruction funds, despite the fact that the Parliament used her signed articles as evidence in its inquiries on the subject. In November 1996, in two front-page stories, Izvestiya chronicled the Federal Security Service's efforts to infiltrate the press-compensation for what the secret police saw as their loss of the propaganda war to Chechen spokespersons.

Journalists also confirm the FSB's role in spreading rumors to discredit reporters who cover Chechnya or other security-related topics, setting them up as targets for violence from any quarter. Summonses for "chats" at the FSB and offers to collaborate-or face career difficulties-are still facts of life that journalists and their editors fear publicizing. In 1996, Yevgeniya Albats, an Izvestiya journalist who had published a book and a series of exposés about the security police, was fired from her job. An Izvestiya editor killed her critical piece on the FSB on Nov. 18 just as it was to go to the printer, and FSB, with copies of the galleys, called Albats the next day and warned her not to publish the article. It ran in Nezouisimoya Gazeta (Independent Newspaper) soon afterwards. In one follow-up investigation of a journalist's murder in 1996, CPJ discovered that callers using false names had threatened colleagues of the victim who had been conducting their own investigation of the killing, demanding that they cease their independent probe into the death if they valued their safety.

Even the boldest press freedom advocates in Russia are unable to sustain inquiries into assassinations. Doing so would mean bucking both silent, vindictive officials and a resistant public that questions why journalists should get special treatment over the thousands of other Russian murder victims whose cases remain unsolved. Thus, for example, editors at the muck-raking Moskovsky Komsomolets have yet to reveal their allegations about the death of Dmitry Kholodov, their reporter killed by an exploding briefcase in 1994 while following up on a tip about army corruption.(See David Satter's special report