January 10, 2003
Report: Russia Is Not Safe For Press
By Andrei Zolotov Jr.
As press freedom watchdogs sum up 2002, they agree that the past year was not the best for Russian journalists but one goes so far as calling Russia the world's most dangerous place to be a journalist.
In saying this, the Paris-based international media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, or RSF, is basing its rating on the number of journalists killed in the line of duty, which it says is four. Other press freedom watchdogs, however, have far different numbers and also question the correlation between the number of journalists' deaths and the state of the media.
Putting Russia directly after two continents -- Asia with 11 killed journalists and Latin America with nine -- the RSF report, called "Annual Roundup. World Political Tensions Eroded Press Freedom in 2002" and posted Monday on the organization's web site, says that "underworld and local officials" were behind the four murders or journalists in Russia.
The report also says that "in Europe increased censorship was most noticeable in Russia" and gives one example: the Federal Security Service's confiscation of the muck-raking weekly Versia's computers in November, accepting its editor's allegation that the raid was connected to the paper's coverage of the Dubrovka hostage crisis, which the FSB denies.
The heads of Russia's two best-known press freedom advocacy groups, Alexei Simonov of the Glasnost Defense Foundation and Oleg Panfilov of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, agree that censorship is growing but say the RSF report does little to shed light on the problems.
For instance, they point to the greater degree of censorship in the regions. Panfilov gave the example of the Politicheskaya Kukhnya current affairs show anchored by Valentina Buzmanina on Nizhny Novgorod's state-owned NNTV local channel, which he said was taken off the air 15 times in 2002.
The biggest trend in the increase of censorship, Panfilov said, is the growing number of criminal cases launched against journalists.
"The number of criminal cases opened against journalists in three years of Vladimir Putin's rule is more than the number during the entire 10 years of Boris Yeltsin's reign," he said. In 2002, his group registered 27 criminal cases opened against journalists.
Some of them are dropped after protests from advocacy groups or when local bureaucrats realize they would be laughed at, Panfilov said. Others end in suspended sentences.
In some cases, a newspaper is de facto shut down by law enforcement officials, who seize its computers as collateral against any future fine.
Another traditional way of getting at unfavorable media is to unleash health or fire inspectors on them, as in the case of web studio Penza Online, which was shut down last year because the temperature in its offices was 2 degrees below the norm.
"What is the norm we see now on television," Panfilov said, referring to heating breakdowns in northwestern Russia.
The RSF report's 2002 death toll for Russia includes three journalists -- Natalya Skryl, a reporter with Taganrog's Nashe Vremya newspaper; Sergei Kalinovsky, editor of Moskovsky Komsomolets' Smolensk edition; Valery Ivanov, editor of Tolyattinskoye Obozreniye and head of Lada-TV in Tolyatti -- and one "media assistant": Alexander Plotnikov, a co-owner of Tyumen's biggest advertising newspaper, Gostiny Dvor, who had an ownership dispute with his business partners.
Simonov said Russia's ranking as the most dangerous country for journalists "is most likely the result of Columbia's poor harvest of dead journalists this year."
But the RSF lists five deaths in Columbia, of three journalists and two so-called media assistants.
Vincent Brossel, the author of RSF's report, said Thursday that one of Columbia's media assistants was a newspaper salesman and in fact Columbia and Russia were "on the same level" of danger. But the organization decided to rate Russia as most dangerous because it had a greater number of media professionals die whose deaths had not yet been linked to their journalistic activities.
Simonov said establishing the connection between a journalist's death and his work is difficult. The Glasnost Defense Foundation gets around this by listing those who "perish" in a given year, and in 2002 it was 19 journalists and six "other media employees" who died of unnatural causes.
"Take the journalists who died on [Krasnoyarsk Governor Alexander] Lebed's helicopter," Simonov said. "Were they in the line of duty? Yes. Were they murdered? No. Does this make Russia a less dangerous place to practice journalism? I don't know."
Panfilov said that only one death -- of Tolyatti's Ivanov -- was clearly related to his journalistic work.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists listed three Russian cases as "confirmed" (Skryl, Ivanov and British freelancer Roddy Scott, whose body was found after fighting in Ingushetia's Galashki village in September), plus Kalinovsky as one of those where the motive is not confirmed.
Panfilov, however, said that according to his Ingushetia sources, Scott was not killed, but died after falling off a cliff and was carried by Chechens to Galashki, where his body was discovered by Russian soldiers.
Brossel defended his organization's choice and criteria. He said RSF included Plotnikov because it considers publishing to be journalistic activity and did not include Scott because he was not particularly targeted but died among a group of Chechen rebels.
"We prefer to be wrong on a certain case and include some names which are not related to press freedom, rather than not include those who are," Brossel said by telephone from Paris.
A bigger issue is what the number of journalists' deaths say about the state of media freedom in a country.
Panfilov, whose group monitors press freedom in the CIS, said that although Russia and Ukraine are probably indeed the most dangerous places for journalists in this part of the world, they are not the most unfree.
"If we speak about government pressure and the absence of a free press, Turkmenbashi's motherland is definitely the leader," Panfilov said, referring to Turkmenistan.
Brossel agreed. "You cannot put on the same level North Korea and the Philippines," he said. "In North Korea, there is no free press, just propaganda, and no reporters are killed that we know of. In the Philippines, there is free press but every year someone gets killed. It may sound like a contradiction, but the fact that journalists get killed means that there is free press in the country."