Russia: Journalists Under Attack – One Year On and Impunity Remains

Russia: Journalists Under Attack – One Year On and Impunity Remains - Protection

Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was murdered in October 2006. She was well known for her reporting on human rights abuses in Russia and the war in Chechnya.

Today, Monday 15 December 2014, marks the 23rd annual Memorial Day, since 1991, commemorating Russian journalists who have lost their lives while carrying out their professional duties. In connection with this day, in December 2013, ARTICLE 19 launched its report The Russian Federation: Journalists under Attack, in which it found that Russia has failed to respond adequately to crimes against journalists, including murders, physical attacks and threats, creating a climate of impunity that only encourages more severe violations of freedom of expression.

One year on, insufficient progress has been made with regards to the ten cases examined in the report and sadly by and large the situation for the safety of journalists in Russia remains unchanged. Despite making new commitments at an international level to tackle impunity and improve protection, during the United Nations Human Rights Council in September 2014, the Russian authorities appear to have little interest in taking concrete steps to tackle this issue at home.

Investigations into the murders of several journalists have dragged, stalled, or been repeatedly suspended, and little has been done to ensure they are conducted in an independent manner. Below we review three cases of journalists murdered as a result of their work, Anna Politkovskaya (2006), Natalia Estemirova (2009) and Akhmednabi Akhmednabiyev (2013), featured in The Russian Federation: Journalists under Attack and examine the varying progress into their investigations over the last year:

Anna Politkovskaya – partial justice is not enough

The murder of Anna Politkovskaya, undoubtedly Russia’s most high-profile murdered journalist, remains not fully resolved. Since her assassination on 7 October 2006, there have been three trials, the most recent ending in June 2014. These trials have now led to six people being imprisoned for carrying out her killing. However, despite the eight years that have passed since Politkovskaya’s murder – little ground has been made in terms of bringing the masterminds to justice.

Politkovskaya, a renowned, award-winning investigative journalist, wrote extensively about human rights abuses, particularly in Chechnya. She wrote for the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, one of the few remaining independent and critical publications in Russia. It is of particular concern is that the masterminds behind her killing have thus far escaped unpunished, reinforcing an environment of impunity in Russia for those guilty of crimes committed against journalists, and fostering a climate of fear amongst journalists wishing to speak out on matters of serious public interest.

While positive developments have been made this year in bringing those involved in carrying out her murder to justice, we can only consider this ‘partial justice’, with the impunity for her murder remaining until the instigators are apprehended and imprisoned.

ARTICLE 19 therefore continues its call on the Federal Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation to:

  • Renew and focus efforts to investigate who instigated the murder of Politkovskaya, in an independent, speedy and effective manner.
  • Ensure future trials are conducted in a proper and timely manner, taking into consideration the victim’s rights and interests, in this case those of Politkovskaya’s family, as prescribed by Article 6 of the Code of Criminal Procedure.

For more about the case, read ARTICLE 19’s spotlight on Anna Politkovskaya in The Russian Federation: Journalists under Attack (December 2013). Politkovskaya also features in ARTICLE 19’s 2014 film Journalist under Attack (available in Russian with English subtitles).  

Natalia Estemirova – a new investigation must take into account all evidence

While some progress can be seen to have been made in the case of Anna Politkovskaya, the same does not hold true for her colleague and friend Natalia Estemirova, whose work as a journalist and human rights defender, exposed human rights abuses, including murders and abductions, perpetrated in the North Caucasus.

This year, on 15 July, marked five years since Estemirova’s abduction in Grozny and subsequent murder in Ingushetia. Investigators continue to show no signs of treating her case in a manner that befits the crime committed. According to a Novaya Gazeta report and other sources, the current official version of events is that Estemirova was killed by Alkhazur Bashaev, a member of an illegal armed group.

However, Novaya Gazeta, alongside the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) and Russian NGO Memorial, carried out their own investigation to supplement the official one. Their findings, released in 2011, indicated discrepancies in the evidence used by the chief investigative body, and they also expressed concern about the possibility of involvement of the local Kurchaloi police force. This last is of particular significance, since Estemirova had drawn attention to an extrajudicial execution in which the Kurchaloi police were implicated just weeks before her murder.

ARTICLE 19’s calls upon the Russian authorities – with increased urgency – for a new independent investigation to be opened into the Estemirova case, which:

  • considers all possibilities thoroughly, including the possible involvement of local law enforcement officers. As such, any new investigation must take into account evidence discovered by Novaya Gazeta, FIDH and Memorial (released already 3 years ago).
  • publicises all and any evidence that supports the current official version of events, regarding Alkhazur Bashaev’s involvement in the murder of Natalia Estemirova.

For more information about this case – read ARTICLE 19’s spotlight on Natalia Estemirova

Akhmednabi Akhmednabiyev –  current investigation must be elevated to federal level

The North Caucasus, the region both Politkovskaya and Estemirova primarily focused on, has remained the most deadly places for journalists in Russia. In July 2013, Akhmednabiyev, a reporter for online news site Caucasian Knot and deputy editor of independent newspaper Novoye Delo, was shot and killed as he left for work in Makhachkala, Dagestan. Akhmednabiyev was getting into his car when a gunman shot him from a passing vehicle, killing him instantly.

A year later, in July 2014, with little progress having been made, the investigation was suspended setting a terrible precedent for future investigations into attacks on journalists in Russia. At the September 2014 session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), ARTICLE 19 called upon the Russian federal authorities to reopen the investigation into Akhmednabiyev’s murder. Two weeks after the UNHRC session, at which ARTICLE 19 also led a panel discussion on the issue of impunity for attacks on journalists, it was announced that Akhmednabiyev’s case had been reopened, albeit still at a local level in the Republic of Dagestan.

Therefore, on the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists, 2 November 2014, ARTICLE 19 sent a letter – co-signed by 30 other international and regional NGOs including Amnesty International, Committee to Protect Journalists, Reports without Borders and the Glasnost Defence Foundation – to the Head of the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation Aleksandr Bastrykin. The letter requested that the “investigation into the murder of Akhmednabi Akhmednabiyev to be transferred to the Central Investigative Department of the Russian Federation’s Investigative Committee” and that an independent and effective investigation be taken to end the “climate of impunity in the country”. The Committee confirmed receipt of the letter on the 18th November, 2014, and promised a response after one month.

ARTICLE 19 sincerely hopes that Mr Bastrykin’s response will show a real commitment to ending impunity for violence against journalists. Transferring Akhmednabiyev’s case to the federal level would:

  • demonstrate a clear willingness, by the Russian authorities, to investigate this crime in a thorough, impartial and effective manner.
  • show a commitment by Mr Bastrykin, and his colleagues, to fight the growing climate of impunity in the country, which poses a serious threat to freedom of expression.

For more information about Akhmednabiyev’s case, see ARTICLE 19’s spotlight in The Russian Federation: Journalists under Attack published in December 2013. Akhmednabiyev also featured in the 2014 film Journalist under Attack (available in Russian with English subtitles).

2015: Next steps for combating impunity for journalists in Russia

A particularly shameful aspect of Akhmednabiyev’s murder was that his death came six months after a previous assassination attempt carried out in a similar manner in January 2013. That attempt was wrongly logged by the police as property damage, and was only reclassified after the journalist’s death.

This demonstrates a clear failure to investigate the motive behind the attack and prevent further attacks, despite a request from Akhmednabiyev for protection. The journalist, like Estemirova and Politkovskaya before him, had faced previous death threats. In 2009, Akhmednabiyev’s name was on a hit-list circulating in Makhachkala, which also featured that of Khadjimurad Kamalov, Editor in Chief of the independent Dagestani newspaper Chernovik, who was gunned down on 15 December 2011. The government’s failure to address these threats is a breach of the State’s “positive obligation” to protect an individual’s freedom of expression against attacks, as defined by European Court of Human Rights case law (Dink v. Turkey).

The failure to not only effectively investigate crimes, but also pre-emptively prevent and protect journalists, is not only a blow for overcoming impunity in those individual cases, but also for acting as a deterrent against future crimes. In August 2014, another journalist Timur Kushev, was found murdered in Kabardino- Balkaria, a North Caucasus republic. The cause and circumstances relating to his death have yet to be established, but there is a high probability, as someone who had also received previous threats, that his death is yet another in a long line of those targeted as a result of their work.

Each case represents an attack on journalists as individuals and against the right of all people to seek, receive and impart information. ARTICLE 19 therefore stresses the importance of the Russian authorities enacting the measures outlined in the resolution to end impunity for attacks against journalists adopted by consensus by the UNHRC on 26 September 2014, including:

  • Ensuring impartial, speedy, thorough, independent and effective investigations, which seek to bring to justice the masterminds behind attacks
  • Ensuring victims and their families have access to appropriate remedies
  • Creating special investigative units and specialist prosecutors
  • Adopting specific protocols and methods of investigation and prosecution
  • Training key actors in investigative and prosecutorial processes
  • Establishing protection mechanisms, including early warning and rapid response systems.

ARTICLE 19 also calls on the Russian Federation to support national, sub-regional and regional, and international human rights mechanisms and bodies, including the universal periodic review, special procedures, and treaty bodies, in promoting and protecting the safety of journalists. In particular, they must cooperate with UNESCO and respond positively to their enquiries for information regarding measures taken to ensure the safety of journalists.