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Brutal Censorship: Targeting Russian Journalists

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The Caucasus

"Everyone shall be guaranteed freedom of thought and speech ... Censorship shall be prohibited."

—Constitution of the Russian
Federation, Chapter 2, Article 29

Widely varying numbers tell a disturbing story about what's happening to journalists and journalism in Russia, especially when someone in power finds their reporting offensive. First, look at the findings released last year by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), which reviewed the deaths of 313 Russian journalists from 1993 to 2009. IFJ determined that 86 journalists and media workers died in Russia because of their work while an additional 38 "may have been killed because of the work they did." Yet Russia's Ministry of Internal Affairs puts the number of journalists killed during the same period at 19.

The internal affairs ministry is an official source in Russia. The IFJ is an independent group of journalists that published the report, "Partial Justice: An Inquiry Into the Deaths of Journalists in Russia, 1993-2009." In many ways the difference between the two sources in the number of journalists' deaths exemplifies the reality of Russian life today: Everything official is constructed to favor the state.

Neither of these sources tells about the many journalists who, fearing for their lives, fled from Russia to seek safety and asylum in foreign lands. Some suggest that 40 journalists have gone into exile during the past decade. No one really knows, though I know a lot of reporters who, like me, decided to do that. Attacks on news organizations and journalists have increased dramatically, as have abductions. At the same time, criminal and civil prosecutions of reporters and editors have escalated.

Some journalists have been murdered in ways that resemble an execution. And the cruel response of high-ranking officials as they seek to marginalize the victims has convinced observers that these are not random murders. They are a publicly sanctioned punishment for reporters' efforts to reveal the truth.

Even after journalists are dead, the attacks on them continue. Shortly after Anna Politkovskaya was assassinated in the elevator of her apartment building, Vladimir Putin, then president of Russia, called her an "insignificant" reporter. In reality, she was a courageous investigative reporter within Russia and a journalist whose stories from Chechnya gained international recognition. Soon after the abduction and murder of award-winning journalist Natalia Estemirova, Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov said she was "a woman with no morality."

Most of the Russian journalists who have been targeted for death focused their reporting on the North Caucasus. There, as in Chechnya and St. Petersburg, no one who has killed a journalist (or media worker) was prosecuted between 1993 and 2007, and this region accounted for three of the five media-related deaths in Russia in 2008, according to the IFJ report.

For more than two decades, the people living there have endured violence resulting from separatist, ethnic and religious conflicts. People are killed or disappear on a daily basis, but because Russia has virtually closed this region to journalists, stories of these crimes are rarely told. Reporters who are not Russian citizens are required to obtain four to five types of accreditation from government officials, depending on where in the Caucasus they intend to go. Those who are Russian face intimidation if they ask questions that the government doesn't want asked.

Of the few news media outlets in the North Caucasus, the vast majority are owned and operated by the state. By law, every TV station is a regional branch of Russia's state-owned network and this means that government control is certain. Among the local newspapers in the Caucasus only four present any views that are in opposition to those of local government officials. Local businessmen own three of these four papers and the state security service there supports the other one. No criticism appears on their pages of either the federal government or its delivery of local services. These topics remain taboo for regional press anywhere in Russia.

Journalism is one of the poorest paid professions in the North Caucasus. The average salary for journalists who work in this region is $200 to $350 per month. At mainstream news organizations in Russia, average monthly income ranges from $5,000 to $7,000.

Only one news Web site in the North Caucasus is legally authorized. That site in Dagestan, charged with extremism, is now under criminal investigation. If people try to go to an unofficial Caucasus-based Web site, they will find on their screen the words "forbidden" or "prohibited" or the browser will redirect them to a pornography Web site.

Since 1998 all Internet providers in Russia have been required by law to install a monitoring system that gives the Federal Security Service (FSB) unlimited access to users' profiles and allows filtering and remote control of Internet traffic from the headquarters of a special branch of the FSB. This Service of Special Communications and Information (SSCI) was formerly the 16th Directorate of KGB, and it reports directly to Putin, who once directed the FSB and is now prime minister of Russia.

With all of these eyes watching them, North Caucasus journalists who decide to work independently find that reporting becomes a life-threatening pursuit. Word has gotten out about the murder or abduction of some reporters but the story of what happened to many others remains untold as they became targets of official and unofficial harassment and intimidation.

Most local journalists hide their identity—writing under pseudonyms, as I have—when they report for foreign or independent Russian media. Usually they simply play the role of a source in passing along information and turning over the results of their investigations to colleagues who don't face the same threats. Of course in doing this, they don't reap the professional rewards of their investigative work.

With SSCI's control over all types of communications in the Caucasus, the use of a pseudonym affords only limited protection. In time, the identity of most journalists is discovered. From that point on, that reporter's life changes dramatically. Some of them leave journalism. Some alter their reporting styles while changing their pseudonym. Some flee the country. Others die...

Read the full article at Nieman Reports.

Read brief descriptions of the journalists whose stories Tlisova was able to tell. More detailed profiles appear at Tlisova's project page on the Pulitzer Center site.