Journalists at Stake


By Padraig Colman

Russia is ranked 150th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2021 World Press Freedom Index. Crimean journalist Remzi Bekirov has recently been sentenced to 19 years in prison by a Russian military tribunal on a trumped-up terrorism charge. There are credible reports published by the Association of European Journalists that Russian soldiers have been capturing and torturing journalists in Ukraine. Kidnapped by Russian troops on 5 March, Nikita (his name is changed for his safety) was held for nine days. He was beaten with an iron bar, tortured with electrodes, and subjected to a mock execution. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has collected and verified his story.

Moscow has already drawn up lists of prominent Ukrainian politicians, pro-democracy activists, journalists, anti-corruption campaigners, religious groups and Russian and Belarusian dissidents who fled to Ukraine from their own countries, to be targeted. 

Hanna Churkina is a prominent member of a pro-democracy group called “Maidan Monitoring”. She says nobody should be surprised by this news. “This is what the Russians have been doing in the areas of Ukraine they’ve occupied since 2014, where many people have disappeared. Some were later found dead and many have never been found. Others are languishing in prison cells without trial. Some received long sentences after show trials.” 

Murdered Journalists

According to the CPJ (Committee to Protect Journalists), 58 journalists have been murdered in Russia between 1992 and 2022. Full details are given on their website. Some sources within Russia talked of over two hundred fatalities. While not all murders can be linked directly to the Kremlin, the frequency of these murders and their effects on Russian independent media certainly suggest, at the very least, complacency on the part of law enforcement officials. In any list of deaths, compiled by monitors inside or outside the country, Russia ranks near the top for deaths. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the homicide rate in Russia was among the highest in the world. There were over 500 contract killings in Russia in 1994. The CPJ lists Russia as “the third deadliest country in the world for journalists”. Russian Journalists died or were killed, the CPJ argued, because of the work they were doing and only one case has led to a partially successful prosecution. 

Concern over the number of unsolved killings soared after Anna Politkovskaya’s murder in Moscow on 7 October 2006. In June 2007, the board of the World Association of Newspapers passed a resolution, calling on the authorities in Russia to “investigate journalist deaths more vigorously.”

For seven years, Politkovskaya refused to give up reporting on the war in Chechnya despite numerous acts of intimidation and violence. She was arrested by Russian military forces in Chechnya and subjected to torture and a mock execution. “The young officers tortured me, skillfully hitting my sore spots. They looked through my children’s pictures, making a point of saying what they would like to do to the kids. This went on for about three hours.” 

She was poisoned while flying from Moscow via Rostov-on-Don to help resolve the 2004 Beslan school hostage crisis but survived.

Russian readers’ main access to her writing was through Novaya Gazeta, a Russian newspaper that featured critical investigative coverage of Russian political and social affairs. From 2000 onwards, she received numerous international awards for her work. In 2004, she published Putin’s Russia, a personal account of Russia for a Western readership.

“It is we who are responsible for Putin’s policies … society has shown limitless apathy … as the Chekists have become entrenched in power, we have let them see our fear, and thereby have only intensified their urge to treat us like cattle. The KGB respects only the strong. The weak it devours. We of all people ought to know that.”

On 7 October 2006, she was murdered in the elevator of her apartment block. She had been shot twice in the chest, once in the shoulder, and once in the head at point-blank range. In June 2014, five men were sentenced to prison for the murder, but it is still unclear who ordered or paid for the contract killing.

Russia in Syria

By 2021, Airwars, which monitors reports of casualties of all airstrikes, documented 23,000 civilian casualties from Russian military actions since 2015. The Airwars report for 2019 had recorded 710 Russian casualty events in Syria, killing between 1,099 and 1,745 civilians. 81 per cent of the events were in Idlib, 13 per cent in Hama, and 5 per cent in Aleppo. The strikes mainly occurred during the Idlib offensive of May to September, with the single worst incident being the July 22nd strikes in Ma’arrat al-Numan which killed up to 42 civilians. A New York Times investigation confirmed Russia’s culpability in the latter. The investigation also detailed Russian attacks on the Martyr Akram Ali Ibrahim Al-Ahmad School in Qalaat al-Madiq on 28 April 2019.

In February 2016, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported extensive use of cluster munitions by Syria and Russia, in violation of United Nations resolution 2139 of 22 February 2014, which demanded that all parties end “indiscriminate employment of weapons in populated areas”. In June 2016, Russia Today, while reporting Minister Shoigu’s visit to Hmeymim air base, showed incendiary cluster bombs being loaded onto Russian airplanes, identified as RBK-500 ZAB-2.5SM due to clearly visible markings. Local witnesses reported that Russia used white phosphorus against targets in Raqqa and Idlib, causing civilian casualties.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have stated that Russia was committing war crimes in Syria and deliberately targeting civilians, including rescue workers. Amnesty International documented attacks on schools, hospitals and civilian homes. In May 2016, the Russian delegation to the UN Security Council vetoed a statement condemning the air strikes on a refugee camp in Idlib on 5 May. In August 2019, over 19 civilians were killed within two days after Russian forces carried out air-raids on a “displaced persons camp” near Hass village in southern Idlib. The director of Amnesty’s crisis response programme, Tirana Hassan, said that after bombing civilian targets, the Russian warplanes “loop around” for a second attack to target the humanitarian workers and civilians who are trying to help those have been injured in the first sortie.

A 2020 report by UN Human Rights Council for the first time directly laid responsibility on Russian Air Force of indiscriminate attacks on civilian targets “amounting to a war crime”.

A recent World Bank assessment described the situation: “Now moving into its eleventh year, the conflict in Syria has inflicted an almost unimaginable degree of devastation and loss on the Syrian people and their economy. Over 350,000 verifiable deaths have been directly attributed to the conflict so far, but the number of unaccounted lethal and non-lethal casualties is almost certainly far higher. More than half the country’s pre-conflict population (of almost 21 million) has been displaced—one of the largest displacements of people since World War II—and, partly as a result, by 2019, economic activity in Syria had shrunk by more than 50 per cent compared to what it had been in 2010.”   

Casual callousness towards civilian casualties is a theme that runs through Putin’s reign. It is on display once again in Ukraine. In Ukraine, Putin continues to use the same tactics he used in Chechnya and Syria. Even at the sieges of the Dubrovka Theatre in Moscow and the Beslan school he used weapons of mass destruction that killed innocent civilians including children that he was supposed to be rescuing. Violence was used to prevent journalists publishing the facts. Today, in Russia itself, brutal methods are used to ensure that Russians only hear the lies the Government wants them to hear. They are already using similar methods in Ukraine.

(The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Ceylon Today)