Working conditions for journalists continued to worsen alarmingly in 2005, with violence the most serious threat to press freedom. The independent press is shrinking because of crippling fines and politically-inspired distribution of government advertising. The authorities’ refusal to accredit foreign journalists showed the government’s intent to gain total control of news, especially about the war in Chechnya.
Pavel Makeev, cameraman for the TV station Puls d’Azov (in the Rostov-on-Don region) and Magomedzagid Varisov, a reporter for the weekly Novoe Delo in Makhachkala (capital of Dagestan), were murdered for doing their job in 2005 and the head of a press group escaped an attempt to kill him in the southwestern city of Samara. Eight journalists were physically attacked and eight others arrested during the year.
The murder of Paul Khlebnikov, a US citizen and editor of the Russian edition of the US magazine Forbes who was shot dead in July 2004, has still not been solved. The fate of Ali Astamirov, Agence France-Presse (AFP) correspondent in Ingushetia and Chechnya, kidnapped in July 2003, is also still a mystery. Neither the official investigators in Moscow or the local prosecutor’s office in Nazran (Ingushetia) have made any progress. The growing violence, which is fed by a climate of total impunity, forces journalists to broadly censor themselves.
The lack of broadcasting diversity and closure of several independent newspapers crushed by huge fines is alarming. The government tightly controls distribution of state advertising, which amounts to blackmailing independent papers that dare to discuss the war in Chechnya. TV stations, now all controlled by the Kremlin or government associates, are also subject to very strict censorship. The foreign ministry said on 2 August that the work permits of journalists of the US ABC TV network would not be renewed. Five days earlier, ABC had broadcast an interview with Chechen warlord Shamil Bassayev by Russian journalist Andrei Babitsky.
Russia’s press laws remain very far below European standards. Freelance journalist Edvard Abrosimov was sentenced to seven months at hard labour for libel by the Saratov (southwestern Russia) regional court on 23 June. Nikolai Goshko, deputy editor of the weekly Odintsovskaïa Nedela, was given a five-year forced labour sentence for libel on 19 August but was later freed after pressure from international organisations.