05.03.07

Protecting Journalists on World Press Freedom Day

These are difficult and dangerous days for reporters around the world. According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, 56 journalists were killed in the line of duty in 2006, most of whom were murdered to silence or punish them. The toll was 9 more than the 47 journalists killed in 2005, just the year before, and well above average for the last 2 decades of reporting. Another 30 reporters were killed, but law enforcement authorities cannot confirm that their deaths were the result of their work.

Outright murder is not the only tool that the authorities use to silence reporters. As of December 1, 2006, 134 journalists were imprisoned around the world as a consequence of their work. Of these, more than 100 were held by only five countries: China, Cuba, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Burma.

These countries which imprison journalists for straying beyond the bounds of official censorship are not the most dangerous for journalists, however. Since 1992, more journalists have been killed in Iraq, Algeria, Russia, Colombia and the Philippinesthan anywhere else.

We are all familiar with the dangers inherent in covering war and insurgencies, and many of those killed in Iraq, Algeria and Colombia have died covering conflicts in these countries. In the Philippines, the murder of journalists has been part of a larger campaign against perceived left-wing activists.

But it is Russia, where more than 20 journalists have been murdered in 6 years since Vladimir Putin succeeded Boris Yeltsin, that we wish to address this evening.

All alone among the top five countries where journalists are murdered, the deaths of journalists in Russia seem to be part of a concerted effort to silence the few remaining journalists who refuse to tow the Kremlin line. China, Cuba and others have been rightly condemned for imprisoning journalists who raised the ire of their governments. Moscowseems to have taken a different tack. Instead of censoring jailing journalists it doesn't like, the Kremlin seems to look the other way when they turn up dead.

There is no direct evidence tying the Putin government to the murder of journalists in Russia, but there is a wealth of circumstantial evidence pointing to at least acquiescence in the death of journalists.

The number of journalists killed, the circumstances of their deaths, the stories they were working on, and perhaps most telling, the fact that not one of the crimes has been successfully prosecuted involving the murder of these journalists in Russia, is indicative of a deliberate decision not to dig too deeply into these murders.

Others hint at something darker. In an editorial the Washington Post recently stated, “The instances of violence against journalists in Mr. Putin's Russiaand of the brutal elimination of his critics both at home and abroad have become so common that it is impossible to explain them all as coincidences.”

The evolution of Russian journalism from its dismal Soviet past to its current role as the Kremlin's sycophant is distressing. During the latter part of the 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev loosened many of the Soviet era's restrictions on the press and the Soviet media became an important player in Gorbachev's policy of Glasnost.

Under Gorbachev, journalists began to explore the full range of issues that had remained hidden for so long by the Soviet Government, the Afghan war, the gulags, the miserable performance of the Soviet economy and the endemic corruption of Soviet society were laid bare. There is little doubt that the Soviet media's revelations were a catalyst in the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

In the immediate post-Soviet era, the Russian press foundered as the economy collapsed, but the first Chechen war, which lasted from 1994 to 1996, revitalized Russian journalism. Television was especially powerful, and its coverage of the war turned millions of Russians against the conflict. In many respects, this period was the high watermark for an independent press in Russia.

But even as NTV and other television outlets helped to shape domestic opposition to the Chechen war, Russian journalism was shedding its independence. As Michael Specter wrote in the New Yorker about this period in Russia, “The moral tone of the journalist's world began to shift from idealistic to mercenary. The practice of writing biased news articles for money became routine, even at the best papers. Restaurant owners, businessmen and public officials knew that, for the right price, it would bring them favorable coverage almost anywhere.”

This distortion of the journalistic creed of objectivity and neutrality was exacerbated in 1996 when President Yeltsin, whose support and opinion polls had fallen into the low single digits, faced off against Communist Gennady Zyuganov in the Russian presidential election. Knowing that without third-party intervention Yeltsin was doomed and that Zyuganov would reimpose control over the media, Russia's media elite intervened.

Over the course of the campaign, NTV and other media outlets collectively swayed Russian public opinion and Yeltsin ended up winning. But the damage was done. As a former anchor for NTV told the New Yorker's Michael Specter, the election “put a poisoned seed into the soil, and even if we did not see why, the authorities understood at once mass media could very easily be manipulated to achieve any goal. Whether the Kremlin needed to raise the rating of a president or bring down an opponent or conduct an operation to destroy a businessman, the media could do the job.”

Once the Kremlin understood it could use journalists as instruments of its will and saw that journalists would go along, everything that happened in the Putin era was, sadly, quite logical.

The ascension of Vladimir Putin to the Russian presidency cemented the link between Russia's rulers and the press. Even without government censorship, the press has become a passive booster of the president's efforts to centralize authority and to restore Russia to its former status as a great power. To that end, the Russian media has ignored the corruption and cronyism that has become institutionalized in Russiasince the Yeltsin period, and has largely been uncritical of the prosecution of the second Chechnyan war which has raged for nearly 8 years.

But even as the vast majority of their colleagues censor themselves and follow the Kremlin line, a few brave journalists have dared to investigate, to question, and criticize. Journalistic independence in Russiais dangerous. And in a few minutes we will introduce you to some of the journalists whose brave voices have been stilled.

When my colleague arrives back on the floor, Mike Pence, I will introduce him. He has been a leading voice in the House on human rights and serves as the other co-chair of our Congressional Caucus For Freedom of the Press.

But this evening I will start in highlighting the Russian journalists who have lost their lives by talking about Ivan Safronov, who died in early March of this year after falling from a fifth floor stairwell window in his apartment building in Moscow.

He was a correspondent at Kommersant, and is the most recent journalist in Russiato die under a cloud of suspicion. Russian officials quickly called his death a suicide. However, according to colleagues of his at Kommersant, he had a very happy family life and had no motive to commit suicide. It was not until Kommersant and some other news media suggested foul play that the authorities agreed to investigate the circumstances of Mr. Safronov's death.

According to his editors, Mr. Safronov, a military affairs writer, was working on a story about Russian plans to sell weapons to Iran and Syria via Belarus. Mr. Safronov had been a colonel in the Russia Space Forces prior to reporting for Kommersant. He frequently angered authorities with his critical reporting and was repeatedly questioned by Federal authorities which suspected him of divulging state secrets. One such report that Mr. Safronov filed that angered officials revealed the third consecutive launch failure of a new Bulava intercontinental ballistic missile. This had been a pet project of President Putin's which was supposed to show the world Russia's nuclear strength.

Strangely enough, no charges were ever brought up against Mr. Safronov. He was well aware that he was reporting on a sensitive issue and was very careful in his work always to have a way to prove he was not divulging state secrets. He was known for making meticulous notes and conducting thorough research so he could always prove he got his information from known sources.

It would seem that sadly Mr. Safronov's reporting was too good and the only way to silence him was by eliminating him. Mr. Safronov is not on either of the lists of journalists that we have tonight to highlight because his death is so recent. But his tragic death is another example of the lack of progress being made to protect journalists in Russia.

Before I begin highlighting 13 of the journalists on the committee to protect journalists of the most recently murdered journalists in Russia, I would like to introduce my colleague from Indiana, Mike Pence, who is one of the co-chairs of the caucus and does a superb job advocating for the rights of the media.