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Published: Sunday, 8/8/2004

Crimes against journalists go unpunished

The hunting season for journalists in Russia was extended last month to include foreigners - an American included.

A U.S. journalist was gunned down in an apparent contract killing in Moscow, where another foreign reporter was later knifed to death and dumped.

Both crimes will likely go unpunished. The home country of Crime and Punishment, a classic novel written by Feodor Dostoyevsky in the late 1800s, still has plenty of both. But unlike in the novel, innocents become the victims of both the crimes and the punishments. Don't expect the murderers to be found.

Paul Khlebnikov, a U.S. citizen and the editor of the Moscow edition of Forbes magazine, was gunned down July 9 when he walked out of his office. A car pulled up and several shots were fired at him. A week later, Pail Peloyan, the chief administrator and a writer for Armenian Lane magazine, was found on the shoulder of Moscow's ring road with fatal stab wounds in the chest and head injuries.

Of about 15 journalists killed in Russia since President Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000, Mr. Khlebnikov was the first foreigner and Mr. Peloyan the second.

The Moscow media exploded with theories about who may have killed Mr. Khlebnikov and why. He had published lists of Russia's often unscrupulous millionaires and their respective fortunes and had written two expose books - one on a former Russian media baron and the other about a Chechen warlord. At the time he was killed, Mr. Khlebnikov was working on a book about the murder of a TV anchor, Vladislav Listyev, a famous Russian anti-corruption journalist killed in 1995. Mr. Peloyan's murder was overshadowed by Mr. Khlebnikov's killing and did not generate much media coverage.

Sure, it is important to find out who killed the two journalists. But it is equally important to realize that there is a culprit equally guilty in the murders. That culprit is the Kremlin.

It is the Kremlin, or Mr. Putin, to be more precise, who has usurped Russia's legal system and made politically motivated trials and forced nationalizations its top priorities, with catching murderers a luxury it cannot or does not want to afford.

In fact, catching the perpetrators of the journalists' murders runs contrary to his self-interest. He has spearheaded a successful effort by Russia's security and legal-system bureaucrats to close or force out of business most of Russia's independent media outlets, which could otherwise undermine the bureaucrats' successful drive to become Russia's ruling class.

The killers clearly realized that. They probably also understood that during the frenzy of a U.S. presidential campaign the otherwise immense pressure to find and punish them would be less. If anything, catching them may send out a "wrong message" in the eyes of President Putin, the godfather of the intimidation of the media in Russia.

" The danger does not come only from criminals and corrupt officials. Journalists are exposed to impudent pressure by the authorities," Grigory Yavlinsky, chairman of Russia's liberal YABLOKO party, wrote in a published statement on Mr. Khlebnikov's murder.

"In circumstances where the publication of an article in the press about corruption in the top echelons of power receives no proper response and where the independent mass media and journalists are actually treated as enemies of the state, criminals feel more and more free to take actions against journalists that will go unpunished."

Amen.

But Mr. Yavlinsky's words are falling on deaf ears. It will be a long time before the punishment follows the crime in Russia.



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