Russia is known as the third most dangerous country in the world for journalists. When you look at how the country is run, this isn't surprising.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is a former KGB agent who has flooded his administration with ex-KGB and active FSB officials. Some posit that nearly 75 percent of government officials in Russia have military or intelligence backgrounds. It's clear then that we're dealing with a nation whose political body is tied inextricably with its security apparatus—a dangerous combination for obvious reasons.
It's been said that the Russian government is best defined as a kleptocracy: "a government with a particularly severe and systemic problem with officials or a ruling class taking advantage of corruption to extend their personal wealth and political power." There is no such thing as a conflict of interest within the Russian political machine; many officials are also majority shareholders in nationalized energy companies, railways, and aerospace companies, to name a few. Rules simply don't apply if you're a member of the 200,000+ strong FSB or if you belong to Putin's elite ruling class; you could run over your elderly neighbor in the crosswalk and never see the inside of a prison. You're untouchable.
So imagine a group with so few scruples being challenged by or held accountable for their actions by an impartial third party. To what lengths would those powerful figures go in order to keep what they have and suppress dissent?
Putin utilizes containment strategies, just like the Chinese government does, in order to control the narrative and improve public perception of his reign. According to journalist Luke Harding, a foreign correspondent with the Guardian, during his time in Moscow, his apartment was regularly broken into and bugged by the FSB (who would ensure bugs were in place, then open a window, use the toilet without flushing, set an alarm for three in the morning, or steal the TV remote—just a bizarre means of intimidation and an obvious insinuation that they could, at any time, come back), his email hacked, and his phone calls monitored and cut off at any mention of a person or subject critical of the regime.
He was regularly tailed and often called in for questioning at FSB headquarters. In conditions such as this, reporting the truth regardless of intimidation has only a few possible outcomes: You'll eventually be driven from the country, end up "disappeared," or get beaten to death when you go outside to grab the mail.
A look at the numbers
One glance at the figures for how many journalists have been killed in Russia in the past 20+ years is telling. Although Russia has less than half the population of the U.S., the number of journalists killed in that country is over ten times as high. And that's only the number of journalists confirmed killed, not those who have been abducted or have disappeared. That also doesn't include the recent rash of reporters abducted or killed by pro-Russian separatists (read: Russian paramilitary forces) while covering the Ukraine conflict.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) report titled "The Anatomy of Justice: The Unsolved Killings of Journalists in Russia," "Investigators attributed the murder of Aleksei Sidorov, editor of Tolyattinskoye Obozreniye, to a random street brawl. Sidorov, so ran the official story, was stabbed with an ice pick after he refused a stranger's appeals for vodka." Sidorov was working on a story exposing government corruption in the car-manufacturing city of Togliatti. The story surrounding his death is obviously contrived, yet it served the government's need for a neatly wrapped conclusion to the man's life. No further investigation will be launched.
In the case of Anna Politkovskaya, a special correspondent for Novaya Gazeta, her work covering human rights abuses in the North Caucasus got her assassinated outside her Moscow apartment while she carried in groceries. A man "clad in dark clothing, his face obscured by a baseball cap" fired four times from a suppressed 9mm pistol, then tossed the pistol next to her body and walked away. Smells like a professional hit to me.
Paul Klebnikov, editor of Forbes Russia, was working on a story regarding the connections between business, politics, and crime. He was killed by a drive-by shooting outside his office.
Yuri Shchekochikhin, editor of Novaya Gazeta, was working to reveal an international corruption scheme. He fell ill from a mysterious illness and died. His medical records were classified a state secret. Sounds like he ate a polonium-flavored sandwich, and Putin's cronies wanted to keep that little gem to themselves.
None of these cases necessarily serve as hard evidence that the Russian government is directly responsible for the deaths of journalists in the country; journalists do have a way of making enemies, even those outside of the government. It does however, at minimum, indicate a criminal indifference on the part of the government. Investigative proceedings, especially when dealing with the murder of journalists critical of the state, are often opaque, ill-prepared, and sloppy. Evidence is regularly ignored or concealed, obvious leads never followed up on, and bogus murder or assault charges leveled at politically expedient individuals who had nothing to do with the crime.
As the CPJ report so aptly asked, "Who in Russia will be left to hold authority accountable if the truth-tellers are written off as expendable?"
I intend to make this the focus of the next book in the Cogar series, tentatively titled "Cogar's Ablation." It's certainly a story that needs telling.
(Featured image courtesy of rferl.org)