Video: Is freedom of the press dead in Russia?

By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 3/7/2007 7:21:32 PM ET 2007-03-08T00:21:32

Another funeral for a Russian reporter and chilling proof, say some, that press freedom is dead.

Ivan Safronov, an outspoken military affairs correspondent for a major Russian newspaper, is the 14th high-profile journalist to die in mysterious circumstances since Russian President Vladimir Putin took office seven years ago. None of the cases has ever been solved.

Safronov fell from this fifth-floor window. At first the death was called a suicide; now a criminal investigation is under way.

His colleagues think he knew too much about a shadowy Russian arms deal with Iran and Syria — embarrassing to the Kremlin.

"Maybe he found out something else, more important and maybe more risky," says Dimitri Kamyshev of Kommersant, a major newspaper based in Moscow.

In October, reporter Anna Politkovskaya was shot and killed outside her Moscow home after a series of her internationally acclaimed reports about human rights abuse by Russian soldiers in Muslim Chechnya.

Now, at editorial meetings of Novaya Gazeta, her former paper, photos of Politkovskaya and two other murdered staff reporters are reminders of the danger — and the challenge — of their jobs.

"If the fear of being killed preoccupies you, then you will be better off just walking out of the newsroom and doing something else," says Yevgenia Albats of The New Times, a news magazine based in Moscow.

But critics say that press freedom is dying in more subtle ways, too.

The Kremlin controls all of the mainstream media, especially TV, where most Russians get all of their news. And in today's Russia, criticizing President Putin — or his system — on TV is like committing career suicide.

Victor Shenderovich at one time could have been called Russia's Jon Stewart. But he's been blacklisted ever since he satirized Putin on his show.

"Russia is becoming a bit like North Korea," he says. "Independent media has been wiped out."

Safronov's colleagues say he was investigating another sale of tactical missiles to Syria just before he died. Now, that story — and the truth behind his death — may be buried with him.

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