At around 10 a.m. Moscow time on March 23, the world saw another example of just how dangerous it is to be an investigative reporter in Russia. Sergei Topol, a 55-year-old political journalist, was beaten by two men outside his apartment building. He was hospitalized with numerous bruises and a concussion.
Topol’s experience with “Beat the Press,” an increasingly popular activity in today’s Russia, is mild compared with that of some of his colleagues. Last fall, 30-year-old Oleg Kashin, a reporter for the influential Moscow daily Kommersant, was beaten with metal rods. The bludgeoning he suffered was so severe that he was in coma for five days and barely survived.
Russia has been one of the most dangerous places for journalists to live and work since the beginning of the 1990s, with some independent international organizations placing the total number of deaths to date at more than 200. Attacks on Russian journalists in recent years have been political assassinations or warnings to stay away from covering subjects that might embarrass those in power.
Topol’s crime was that he had written a series of stories stating that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin would leave his wife for 27-year-old Olympic gymnast Alina Kabayeva. Shortly thereafter, the paper where Topol was employed suddenly closed down.
Despite having unlimited manpower and resources to tail journalists who are poking around on the “wrong” stories, tap their phones, intercept their emails and generally keep them under round-the-clock surveillance, the Russian police and security services suddenly become deaf, dumb, blind and incompetent when these same journalists are attacked or murdered. No arrests have yet been made in either the Topol or Kashin beatings, despite the latter incident having been caught on a surveillance camera.
Nor are those paid to “protect and to serve” in much of a hurry to collect evidence and arrest suspects for prosecution. And when cases do go to trial, the judiciary, which is ruthlessly efficient about putting away those whom the Putin regime has targeted tends to go wobbly.
Conviction rates for journalists murdered because of random, non-political violent crime not related to their work are excellent. But put someone on trial for whacking a reporter about to expose or embarrass some high-ranking Moscow personage and the conviction rate drops spectacularly. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, none of the cases of the 14 journalists murdered in Russia since 2000 (the year Putin became president) have been solved, and “13 bear the marks of contract hits.”
This article was adapted from The Weekly Standard.