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Fear and mourning at a Russian newspaper

In a country considered one of the most dangerous for journalists, no Russian newspaper has suffered like Novaya Gazeta.
Russia Murdering a Newspaper
In a country considered one of the most dangerous for journalists, no Russian newspaper has suffered like Novaya Gazeta. Novaya Gazeta's staff, at left, tries to plan the next issue.Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The dead loom over the morning editorial meeting at Russia's leading investigative newspaper. Novaya Gazeta's staff is trying to plan the next issue and editor-in-chief Dmitry Muratov is in an understandably foul mood.

In a corner hang photos of four reporters he has lost in the past eight years — one beaten to death, one allegedly poisoned, two shot — the most recent on Jan. 19.

It's not easy to put a paper out these days, Muratov says.

"There's usually a lot of jokes, laughing, talk about ideas. But our batteries are totally spent," says Muratov, 47, billows of pipe smoke filling the long pauses. "How can there be any sort of (normal) frame of mind when a journalist is being buried?"

That journalist was Anastasia Baburova, a 25-year-old cub reporter. She and a human rights lawyer were shot execution-style by a masked man with a silenced pistol as they walked together a few blocks from the Kremlin.

In a country considered one of the most dangerous for journalists, no Russian newspaper has suffered like Novaya Gazeta. In a country where most media have been cowed into submission, no other newspaper publishes such probing investigative articles and acid commentary about government corruption, police-state politics and Chechnya war abuses.

"Every two or three years, we lose someone," says Elena Kostyuchenko, a 21-year-old investigative writer for the paper. "But you just have to write, write, write and keep writing. You have to."

Some 16 journalists have died in contract-style slayings or under suspicious circumstances in Russia since 2000. Many more have been assaulted or threatened.

A rare survivor
Under Vladimir Putin, who became president in 2000 and now is prime minister, the TV networks watched by most Russians were taken over by the state, their news operations highly sanitized. Big-selling newspapers are either sympathetic to the Kremlin or owned by Kremlin-allied business groups.

Of the many free-spirited papers that sprang up when the Soviet Union collapsed, Novaya Gazeta — meaning New Newspaper — is a rare survivor.

Its most high-profile loss was Anna Politkovskaya, a reporter who savaged the Kremlin for its conduct of the war on Chechen separatists. Her shooting outside her Moscow apartment in 2006 provoked worldwide condemnation and major embarrassment for the Kremlin.

Three Chechens — two brothers and a former police officer — are on trial but the prosecution is not offering a motive or identifying any mastermind, leading Novaya Gazeta and others to claim the trial is a cover-up. Putin has claimed the killing was hatched abroad to discredit Russia.

The paper's first fatality, in 2000, was Igor Domnikov, who wrote about regional corruption. He was attacked with a hammer. Seven members of a criminal gang were convicted of his murder in 2007. The lead defendant claimed a regional governor had Domnikov killed for criticizing him. The governor was not charged.

In 2003, Yury Shchekochikhin died of a severe allergic reaction, but colleagues claimed he was poisoned. Shchekochikhin, 53, wrote about high-level corruption and investigated the deadly 1999 bombings of apartment blocks.

In the latest killing, it appears lawyer Stanislav Markelov, who specialized in defending Chechens, environmentalists and human rights activists, was the primary target and Baburova may have been killed after she tried to intervene.

Many at Novaya Gazeta are convinced that nationalist or fascist groups are behind the latest attacks and the paper's own blog is full of anonymous postings celebrating the killings. Others suspect the involvement of security agencies, citing past incidents when Novaya Gazeta's phones were tapped or in 2000, when its computer hard drives were stolen.

Novaya Gazeta writers and editors have attended self-defense classes and keep their notes hidden or stored on secure computer servers. Some use pseudonyms. At least one has bodyguards because of death threats. Others take precautions they won't discuss. Alexander Lebedev, a billionaire ex-lawmaker who is part-owner of the paper, is demanding that authorities allow its reporters to carry guns.

Not all the paper's staff support the idea. Muratov, the editor, does.

"Either we defend ourselves or we go write about nature and birds ... and all positive things. We become a tabloid," he says. "And then we don't write about the security services. We don't write about corruption. ... We don't write about fascism."

‘You stop being frightened’
Yulia Latynina, a radio show host and Novaya Gazeta columnist who is relentlessly critical of Putin, blames fascist gangs for the killings and accuses police agencies and security forces of sympathizing or even cooperating with them.

Like Politkovskaya, her name appears regularly on death lists circulating on the Internet. Is she afraid? Latynina demurs, saying: "The Kremlin doesn't need another Politkovskaya."

Vera Chelysheva, who writes for the paper's Web site, says most Russians are indifferent to the murders.

"This is a country that lived through the gulag camps, through Stalin. They know how to kill people. That's why no one is taking to the streets in protest," she says. "This is a country that's forgetting its history."

Founded in 1993, Novaya Gazeta is published thrice-weekly and its circulation has climbed to 270,000, — less than the state-run or pro-Kremlin newspapers but strong among Russians who seek an independent voice on touchy issues such as government corruption or Chechnya.

A libel judgment nearly shut it down in 2002. Then, three years ago, Lebedev and former President Mikhail Gorbachev bought a 49 percent stake for an undisclosed sum. The journalists hold the remaining shares.

Two days after the latest killings, half the front page was filled with a photo of Markelov lying on the sidewalk, blood pooled by his head, and these words of defiance:

"The killers have no fear. Because they know that they will never be punished. But the victims also have no fear. Because when you defend another person, you stop being frightened."