MOSCOW — Three Russians producing a documentary about mercenary forces close to the Kremlin were gunned down in the Central African Republic this week, highlighting the risks that Russian journalists continue to take despite the growing numbers who perish in their line of work.
The journalists were shot dead in an ambush while driving across the war-torn country, according to local officials quoted by news agencies. The news outlet they were working with said they were investigating Russian military contractors operating in the Central African Republic, where President Faustin-Archange Touadéra is looking to Russia as a provider of arms and military training amid a bloody civil war.
It is not clear who killed them.
The three men — Orkhan Dzhemal, Kirill Radchenko and Alexander Rastorguyev — were among those Russians who continue to pursue independent investigative reporting despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s crackdown on press freedoms and in the face of violence often perpetrated against journalists. Just in recent weeks, two other Russian journalists died in unexplained circumstances in the city of Nizhny Novgorod.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the exiled former Russian oil tycoon, financed the documentary on the mercenaries as part of what he said is several million dollars a year in support he provides to Russian media.
In an interview Wednesday, Khodorkovsky said that he was determined to find out who was behind the killings and that it was too soon to blame the Kremlin or anyone else. He said he would become more closely involved in his outlets’ risk assessments in the future and would not stop funding investigative journalism.
“It’s one of the few ways we can currently influence the situation in the country,” Khodorkovsky said by phone from London. “When even rather small news outlets write about something and it gets attention in even a narrow segment of the public, the authorities can get rather sensitive and tuck in their paws.”
In recent years, Russian journalists have documented the workings of the St. Petersburg “troll farm” that tried to influence the 2016 U.S. election, the activities of Russian forces in Ukraine and mercenaries in Syria, and a raft of examples of domestic corruption and abuse. Last month, six prison guards were arrested after the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta published a video of torture inside a Russian prison.
Since 2000, at least 28 journalists have been killed in Russia, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
On Wednesday, the Russian Foreign Ministry and pro-Kremlin news media said the journalists killed this week may have been at fault. The RIA Novosti state news agency quoted a Russian expert on Africa as saying that the journalists had died in a “typical robbery amid the overall conflict.” Komsomolskaya Pravda, Russia’s biggest tabloid, speculated that Western intelligence agencies may have carried out the killing to discredit Russian interests in the Central African Republic.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said that local officials had reported that the journalists had ignored warnings that they were entering a dangerous area.
“What they were really doing in C.A.R., what their goals and tasks were, is an open question,” Zakharova said in a Facebook post. She said the journalists had entered the country on tourist visas — without the proper accreditation — and that they had failed to seek security advice from the Russian Foreign Ministry before their trip.
Andrei Konyakhin, the editor of the Investigations Management Center — the Khodorkovsky news outlet working with the filmmakers — told the Associated Press that the reporters had used tourist visas so that they could work undercover and that he was skeptical that they were robbed.
“This was done in a very demonstrative fashion,” he told AP. “If they could have just taken everything from them, why kill them?”’
The three journalists landed in the capital, Bangui, on Saturday morning, the Investigations Management Center said. On Sunday, they unsuccessfully tried to enter a military base where they thought Russian mercenaries were training the country’s army. On Monday, the news outlet said, the journalists set out on a 230-mile drive to the city of Bambari, where they hoped to arrange government contacts and a visit to a gold mine.
The journalists were apparently killed during that drive, but on a road north of the route they were expected to take. Their driver survived, according to news agency reports.
The Central African Republic has been beset by over two decades of conflict that in recent years has taken on an overt religious aspect. In 2013, the Seleka, a Muslim militia, overthrew then-President François Bozizé and has been locked in battle since with the “anti-balaka,” a largely Christian militia. Both sides have committed atrocities.
Amid the carnage, Russia has seized an opportunity to gain influence in sub-Saharan Africa. In March, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said that Moscow was working with the diamond- and gold-rich Central African Republic to study “the mutually beneficial development of Central African natural resources.” Russia also received U.N. approval to deliver small arms and ammunition to the country’s government and provide five military trainers and 170 civilian instructors.
The Investigations Management Center said the journalists were investigating mercenaries overseen by the Wagner group, a private military company linked to Yevgeniy Prigozhin, a catering magnate close to Putin. Russian news media have reported that Wagner is also active in Syria, and Prigozhin himself was indicted by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III for his alleged involvement in the St. Petersburg troll farm’s intervention in the 2016 U.S. election.
“I concluded that in our case the situation with these kinds of nontransparent mercenary structures is even more dangerous than it is in general,” Khodorkovsky said, explaining why he gave the go-ahead for the documentary. “Tomorrow they can be used to deal with things inside Russia using nongovernmental hands.”
Max Bearak in Harare, Zimbabwe, contributed to this report.