For Russian journalists, one beating too many
Monday, November 8, 2010; 2:51 PM
MOSCOW - Maybe it was the viciousness of the beating, or that it was caught on the grainy videotape of a security camera in horrifying detail or that the victim worked for a mainstream newspaper. Thirty-two Russian journalists have been murdered since 1993 and more than 30 attacked this year, but after Oleg Kashin was beaten nearly to death this weekend, something seemed to change.
President Dmitry Medvedev promptly tweeted Saturday, shortly after the beating happened, that the criminals must be found. Television news made the attack the top story, reporting it at length. And for the first time, journalists took to the picket lines, standing in silent protest outside Petrovka 38, the headquarters of the Moscow police.
"It has changed my way of thinking," Julia Sadovskaya, a 23-year-old Web journalist said Monday, holding a placard in the freezing rain outside Petrovka 38. "Now I understand. If we don't unite, we will be very weak, and it will be very easy to suppress us all."
This wasn't the only assault over the past few days. Sergei Mikhailov, the hard-driving editor of the Saratov Reporter in central Russia, was hit hard on the head Friday evening after stopping in a store to buy dumplings. He lost consciousness, and a passerby who offered aid said he saw two men running away. The news didn't reach Moscow until Monday afternoon.
Early Monday, Anatoly Adamchuk, a reporter for Zhukovsky Vesti, a newspaper southeast of Moscow, was attacked outside his office. Adamchuk, who has been covering a controversial logging project, was hit several times in the head by two men who stole a thumb drive.
The demonstrators demanded to know who ordered the attacks, as well as who carried them out.
International organizations have vigorously protested attacks on Russian journalists, which often get little attention here, or are even belittled. When investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya was murdered four years ago, President Vladimir Putin dismissively said she had little influence on public opinion. Few journalists identified with her - she was known for her criticism of the Chechen war - and they did not take to picket lines.
Kashin, a reporter for the authoritative Kommersant newspaper and a vivid personality in the blogosphere, was jumped early Saturday morning as he approached his apartment in central Moscow. Video widely reported as taken from a security camera shows a man holding a bouquet of flowers walking through the gate ahead of Kashin, turning on him and striking him hard with what looks like a metal rod - reportedly pulled from the bouquet.
Kashin falls as a second man, behind him, joins with blow upon blow. The first man holds the rod in both hands, raising it over his head and striking Kashin with the force of someone splitting wood. Within a minute and a half the assailants walk through the gate, gone, as cars pass on the street. The video, shown on one TV news program and widely viewed on YouTube, has not been disputed by authorities.
Kashin remained in an induced coma Monday, suffering from two broken jaws, a fractured skull and mangled fingers, among his injuries.
He covered a wide range of subjects and had tangled on his blog with the governor of Pskov and controversial youth movements. He also aggressively reported on the disputed Khimki Forest highway project. Two years ago this month, similar reporting led to an attack on Mikhail Beketov, the editor of a paper in suburban Khimki, who was left unable to walk and half paralyzed with one leg amputated. Recently Medvedev ordered a reassessment of the highway project, putting Beketov into the news even as a local official hauled him into court, silent in his wheelchair, on slander charges.
After all this, Mikhail Melnikov, an analyst at the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, was surprised to see journalists finally protesting on the streets. About two dozen gathered Saturday, followed by more than 100 on Sunday, reinforced by a scattering of pro-democracy advocates. By Monday, there were a dozen or fewer at any one time.
"And it's very interesting that the police are not forcing them away," Melnikov said.
He suggested a confluence of events was raising the collective consciousness in a nation where most journalism is servile to government and business interests. On Oct. 31, a small pro-democracy demonstration was permitted for the first time in years, making protesters less fearful. Medvedev's tweets emboldened reporting. And the assault, as brutal as Beketov's, simply caused outrage.
In the West, said Andrei Richter, a journalism professor and director of the Institute of Media and Law, journalists are considered part of the bulwark of democracy. "Here, there is no real public support of journalists," he said. "The public doesn't view them as watchdogs of government but as people selling stories."
Attacks against journalists are not even classified as major crimes, Richter said. Rather than attempted murder, the charge is hooliganism, which carries a much lighter sentence.
But standing in the cold, the rain matting the blue fur on her parka hood, Sadovskaya said what happened to Kashin has already changed everything. She covers culture, has never felt threatened and never empathized with those who were - until now. "He is such a talented journalist," she said. "He worked for a prestigious newspaper where everyone wants to work. He was well-paid and he was uncompromised. Now I understand if it can happen to him it can happen to anyone. Now I want to change things, and I'm not afraid. I am mad."
But Alexei Simonov, president of the Glasnost Defense Foundation, a media advocate here, was not ready to call this a turning point.
"The turning point," he said, "will come when they close all the newspapers and start over."