It's open season on journalists in Russia

It's open season on journalists in Russia

Brave crusader: Mikhail Beketov sits in a wheelchair outside a hospital on the outskirts of Moscow. NYT

Mikhail Beketov had been warned, but would not stop writing. About dubious land deals. Crooked loans. Under-the-table hush money. All evidence, he argued in his newspaper, of rampant corruption in a Moscow suburb.

“Last spring, I called for the resignation of the city’s leadership,” Beketov said in one of his final editorials. “A few days later, my automobile was blown up. What is next for me?”
Not long after, he was savagely beaten outside his home, his body left to bleed in the snow. His fingers were bashed, and three later had to be amputated, as if his assailants had sought to make sure that he would never write another word. He lost a leg. Now 52, he is in a wheelchair, his brain so damaged that he cannot utter a simple sentence.
The police promised a thorough investigation, but barely looked up from their desks. Surveillance videos were ignored. Neighbours were not interviewed. Information about politicians’ displeasure with Beketov was deemed ‘unconfirmed’.

Prosecutors, who had repeatedly rejected Beketov’s pleas for protection, took over the case, but did not seem to accomplish much more. Beketov’s colleagues said they were eager to offer insights about who in the government had been stung by his exposes. But no one asked. Eighteen months later, there have been no arrests.

In retrospect, the violence was an omen, beginning a wave of unsolved attacks and official harassment against journalists, human rights activists and opposition politicians around the region, which includes the Moscow suburbs. Rarely, if ever, is anyone held responsible.

One editor was beaten in front of his home, and the assailants seized only copies of his articles and other material for the next day’s issue, not his wallet or cellphone. Local officials insisted that he sustained his injuries while drunk.

Another journalist was pummelled by plainclothes police officers after a demonstration. It was all captured on video. Even so, the police released a statement saying that he had hurt himself when he was accidentally pushed by the crowd.

These types of attacks or other means of intimidation, including aggressive efforts by prosecutors to shut down news media outlets or nonprofit groups, serve as an unnerving deterrent. And in a few cases in recent years, the violence in the country has escalated into contract killings. Corruption is widespread in Russia, and government often functions poorly. But most journalists and nonprofit groups shy away from delving deeply into these problems.

Russia’s president, Dmitry Medvedev, has bemoaned the country’s ‘legal nihilism’. Yet under Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir V Putin, it has persisted. And among the major beneficiaries have been the governing party’s politicians.

Boris Gromov, the governor of the Moscow region, commanded the 40th army during the Soviet war in Afghanistan, and his opponents believe that he governs with a general’s sense of order. Gromov, appointed by Putin, has in turn seeded local government with fellow Afghanistan veterans, including the Khimki mayor, Vladimir Strelchenko.
Beketov often referred to Gromov and Strelchenko as ‘army boots,’ and did not think much of their honesty.

Beketov was brawny like a boxer, fast-talking, perpetually late and prone to latching onto causes. He himself had been an officer in the army paratroops, but then switched to journalism, working as a war correspondent in Afghanistan and Chechnya. His experiences left him with a distaste for overbearing military officials.

Khimki Truth
He established his newspaper, ‘Khimkinskaya Pravda’ (Khimki Truth), in 2006. He wrote regularly about what he considered corruption among local officials, who were often members of Putin’s governing party, United Russia.

He financed the newspaper himself. It had a circulation of only about 10,000 copies, but it garnered a large following in Khimki, which has a population of 1,85,000, and the surrounding cities, especially after Beketov grabbed hold of two topics.
His articles resonated nationally when he questioned why the city had demolished a monument that contained the remains of Soviet fighter pilots. The work was done to widen a road.

And he relentlessly focused on the fate of the Khimki forest, a pristine expanse of old-growth oaks and wild animals, including elk and boars, improbably close to Moscow. With little public notice, the government had planned to build a major highway to St Petersburg through the forest. Beketov suspected that officials were secretly profiting from the project.

Local officials, unaccustomed to such criticism, lashed out publicly. Privately, Beketov received phone threats. He asked the authorities for help, but was rebuffed, his colleagues said. He returned home one day to discover his dog dead on his doorstep. Then his car was blown up. Instead of investigating the explosion, prosecutors opened a criminal inquiry into his newspaper.

On a November evening in 2008, Beketov was assaulted, most likely by several people, outside his home. He was discovered by a neighbour the next day. Even as Beketov later lay in a coma at the hospital, he was not safe. A threat was phoned in: We will finish him off. His friends and colleagues grew so alarmed that they moved him out of the Khimki hospital to a better, more secure one in neighbouring Moscow.Fearing for his safety and more criminal charges, he quit.

“Everyone was against me — the judges, the police, the prosecutors, everyone,” he said. “I took over Consensus and Truth because I supported Prime Minister Putin’s call to fight corruption. But look what happened. The machine here did everything possible to defeat us.”

Back in Khimki, a new opposition newspaper, ‘Khimki Our Home’, was established to help continue Beketov’s work.

The editor, Igor Belousov, 50, is a deeply religious man. He publishes the Russian Orthodox calendar in his newspaper. Before turning to journalism, he was a senior city official, but he resigned because of what he described as pervasive corruption.
Not long after the publication got started, Belousov was accused of criminal libel by prosecutors and civil libel by Mayor Strelchenko. In February, the police, without any notice, arrested him on charges of selling cocaine. Court documents show that the case is based exclusively on the testimony of a drug dealer from another city who could not recall basic details of the alleged crime.

“We used to have so many journalists here, but they have all suffered and have all given up,” Belousov said. “Only I remained, and now I am giving up.”

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