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Last Updated: Friday, 2 July, 2004, 13:23 GMT 14:23 UK
Russian journalism comes under fire
By Paul Jenkins
BBC's Storyville programme

In April 2001, the previously independent Russian TV channel NTV was taken over by the giant Gazprom industrial conglomerate.

The protests by NTV's journalists and television employees against what they saw as the state clamping down on their freedom were dramatic and passionate.

Gazprom's replacement as chief of NTV, Boris Jordan (an American), has since been deposed, and all major television stations in Russia have been brought under state control.

Valery Ivanov (left) and Alexei Sidorov
Journalists Valery Ivanov (left) and Alexei Sidorov were both killed
TV news reports on Chechnya and President Vladimir Putin have to meet with the Kremlin's approval. Journalism is further undermined by the fact that powerful businessmen routinely commission stories in the press for cash.

Togliatti is a one-industry city 800km (500 miles) south-east of Moscow. Most of those employed among its 740,000 inhabitants work for the giant AvtoVaz car factory, set up with the help of Fiat in the late 1960s.

Togliatti's leading newspaper is the Togliatti Observer. Its founding editor, Valery Ivanov, was murdered in April 2002.

Ivanov was shot several times outside his home with a silenced pistol as he went out to buy sweets for his daughter. He was 32.

Using every possibilities to compel independent professionals to write according to their wishes, corrupted power uses assassination
Valery Ivanov,
murdered journalist
The Togliatti Observer had a reputation for mounting tough investigations into local crime and corruption, and was unafraid to link the local authorities and police to organised crime rackets costing the city millions of dollars.

The city has witnessed a mafia killing spree - there have been 110 commissioned killings in Togliatti over the past six years, five of those murdered were journalists.

The local cemetery has a special section for mafiosi, complete with gravestones bearing grimly humorous footnotes along the lines of "Don't worry Dima, we got the guy who did you".

Hundreds of people attended Ivanov's funeral, and his murder made national headlines in Russia. But like almost all journalist slayings in Russia, Ivanov's murder remains unsolved.

Hundreds die

The Glasnost Defence Foundation, a Russian NGO representing journalists under threat, claims that 130 journalists have been murdered in Russia since 1991. But, as Ivanov's case illustrates, proving conclusively that each and every one of them was murdered for their journalism is nigh on impossible in Russia.

Russia has more than 22,000 newspapers, but almost all are owned by pro-government or powerful business interests that constrain their reporting. The Togliatti Observer is one of the exceptions.

Funeral
More than 130 journalists have been killed since 1991
Ivanov's colleague Alexei Sidorov took over as editor, and vowed to continue his friend's work. Under Sidorov, the Togliatti Observer continued to publish serious investigations.

But on the evening of 9 October 2003, Sidorov was also murdered. He was stabbed several times with an ice pick, and died on the steps of his block of flats, having managed to crawl a few yards to buzz his wife on the entry-phone.

As pressure mounted from journalists, NGOs and international organisations, top Russian officials promised action. Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov called solving Sidorov's murder "a matter of honour". He promised to dispatch a top investigative team down to Togliatti to crack the case.

Contradictions

Russia's Deputy Prosecutor General Vladimir Kolesnikov visited Togliatti the week following the murder, and very soon afterwards the authorities announced that they had caught their man - a factory worker named Evgeny Maininger.

Kolesnikov was keen to point out that the case bore no relation to Sidorov's journalistic activities, but was a common street murder.

President Vladimir Putin
President Vladimir Putin has not been media friendly
Many in Russia following the case, however, do not believe this official version of events. Not least because Russian officials in Togliatti and Moscow made seemingly contradictory statements in the immediate aftermath of the murder.

A top Moscow-based human rights lawyer, Karen Nersisyan, has been hired by the Glasnost Defence Foundation to act on behalf of the families of both murdered editors of the Togliatti Observer.

Witnesses in Togliatti have told Nersisyan that Evgeny Maininger, the factory worker on trial for Sidorov's murder, was beaten by the Togliatti police while in custody. Maininger's colleagues claim that the local police demanded they make false statements that they witnessed Maininger making the murder weapon.

High price

Nersisyan believes that Maininger's life is in danger, and that the prosecutor general's office is "a dangerous structure, acting not in the interests of society or the country, but for unknown interests".

In the absence of a properly functioning judicial system, the question is who will protect the journalistic community in Russia to enable it to get on with its job, acting as a check and balance on power.

Valery Ivanov, the first murdered editor of the Togliatti Observer, wrote about the sacrifice some Russian journalists make.

"In this struggle, journalists are dying. Using every possibilities to compel independent professionals to write according to their wishes, corrupted power uses assassination," he said.

"This is the tragic price that Russian society is paying for freedom of speech and a free press."

Russia's Number One citizen, President Vladimir Putin, has a different perspective:

"Russia has never had a free media, so I don't know what I am supposed to be impeding," he said on 26 September 2003.

The Russian Newspaper Murders, BBC Four Storyville, will be broadcast on 6 July at 2130.


SEE ALSO:
Black year for journalists
09 Jun 04 |  In Depth
End of run for Kremlin critic
01 Mar 03 |  Europe
Putin blamed for TV shutdown
22 Jan 02 |  Europe


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