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IPI delegation raises issue of impunity, self-censorship with Human Rights Ombudsman

IPI holds discussions with media outlets in first leg of Russia advocacy mission; organisation asks Ombudsman to transmit concerns to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev

(IPI/IFEX) - Moscow, 2 October - The International Press Institute (IPI), a media freedom organisation with an almost 60-year history of defending liberty of the press, on Wednesday began a five day advocacy mission to Russia, one of the world's most dangerous countries for journalists.

The mission began with an investigation into the events surrounding the brutal attack on a Khimki-based editor-in-chief in November 2008.

Unknown assailants beat Mikhail Beketov outside his home in November of last year, leaving him for dead. Colleagues believe the attack was linked to Beketov's reporting on corruption at the local government level. The reporter remains hospitalised to this day.

The IPI delegation, consisting of Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza editor-in-chief Adam Michnik, Russian investigative monthly Sovershenno Secretno editor-in-chief Galina Sidorova, IPI deputy director Alison Bethel McKenzie, and IPI press freedom adviser Colin Peters, travelled to Khimki to talk to Yevgeniya Chirikova, a local environmental campaigner who is continuing Beketov's work.

"So far the official investigation has turned up nothing," Chirikova told the delegation, describing the authorities' seeming lack of interest in the case.

"Police didn't even call me in as a witness, I had to volunteer myself to make a statement," she said.

The IPI delegation then visited the editorial office of the Moscow-based Sovershenno Secretno to talk to investigative reporters, followed by a visit to the headquarters of tri-weekly independent Novaya Gazeta, a Russian newspaper that has suffered the loss of four of its journalists and two other associates in the past decade.

The six were either murdered or died in suspicious circumstances.

"Following a very nervous discussion with my journalists, I had to limit reporting on the Caucasus region," said Dmitry Muratov, the Novaya Gazeta's editor-in-chief.

"I cannot guarantee the safety of my journalists," Muratov explained, confirming IPI's concern that self-censorship is rife in Russia.

The Novaya Gazeta will be holding a memorial event near their headquarters on the third anniversary of the murder of renowned journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was shot dead outside her apartment on 7 October 2006.

Yesterday, 1 October 2009, the delegates met with Russian Human Rights Ombudsman Vladimir Lukin, with whom they discussed their concerns, specifically the murder of journalists, the impunity that the killers enjoy, and the self-censorship that ensues, asking for Mr. Lukin to raise these with Russia's President, Dmitry Medvedev.

"I know that in some cases there are some sort of plots," said Lukin in reference to the murder of Russian journalists, "but in my mind is the unsatisfactory resolution of investigations (into these murders)."

IPI then met with top representatives of local media organisations Glasnost Defence Foundation (GDF), the Centre for Journalism in Extreme Circumstances (CJES), and the Russian Union of Journalists (RUJ), in order to talk about the state of media freedom in Russia in general.

"Things are not improving. Everyone is speaking the same language," said GDF's Alexei Simonov, referring to civil society and Russia's authorities, "but that language is not specific enough - we are using the same words, but often we mean opposite things."

Simonov pointed to acknowledgement of impunity as a major problem as a "big step forward," while the RUJ's Pavel Gutiontov highlighted the fact that even an end of the murder of journalists would not solve the problems of the Russian media, as direct political intervention at the regional level is widespread.

CJES head Oleg Panfilov was also pessimistic regarding media freedom in the country.

"There is no understanding of freedom of the press," Panfilov said.

Commenting at the end of the Moscow leg of the mission, IPI delegate Adam Michnik said that "censorship in the official sense does not exist in Russia."

"But it does exist in the form of pressure, of fear of physical attack, which shows itself in self-censorship," continued Michnik. "Journalists cannot perform their normal, professional duties."

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