Last week, there was yet another reminder that journalists are far from safe in Russia. Media outlets around the world were reporting that the Arctic Sea cargo ship—which went missing for more than two weeks in early August—might have been transporting Russian S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Iran. But a Russian journalist who repeated those claims was forced to flee his country, fearing repercussions.
Mikhail Voitenko, editor of the online Maritime Bulletin-Sovfrakht, claimed he’d received a phone call from “serious people” after publicly contradicting Russian officials. It’s just further proof, says Jean-François Julliard, secretary-general of Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF), that “it’s not safe to be a journalist in Russia.”
Indeed, Russia ranks as one of the deadliest countries in the world for working journalists: only Iraq and Algeria are more dangerous, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. On RSF’s press freedom index, Russia ranked 141st of 173 countries in 2008, putting it slightly behind Sudan.
Unlike in more repressive countries like Burma, “there are investigative reporters in Russia,” Julliard says. “Yet it’s difficult for them to express their views freely.” Large media companies tend to be cozy with government, he says, while smaller papers have limited distribution. According to Marta Dyczok, associate professor at the University of Western Ontario, freedom of the press has only gotten worse under Vladimir Putin.
Yet there is some cause for optimism. Last week, Russia’s Supreme Court ordered prosecutors to begin a new investigation into the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, an outspoken investigative journalist gunned down in her Moscow apartment building in 2006. This is cause for hope, Julliard believes. Still, he remains realistic about what will be uncovered. “Maybe someday they’ll find the murderer,” Julliard says. “But I’m sure we’ll never find the one who paid for the killing.”