Free speech, at a deadly price

SUN JOURNAL

Russia: Reporters at a young newspaper have been beaten and killed because of their efforts to challenge corruption.

January 30, 2001|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - In 1993, Mikhail S. Gorbachev helped a small group of reporters and editors establish a newspaper by giving them money from his 1990 Nobel Peace Prize for the purchase of newsroom computers.

The journalists called their paper Novaya Gazeta - New Newspaper. And seven years later, their paper is as fresh as ever, though the only peace they find is with their consciences.

Last summer, Igor Domnikov, a 42-year-old reporter and special-projects editor for the paper, was killed. His colleagues speculate that he was mistaken for Oleg Sultanov, a Novaya Gazeta investigative reporter who lived in the same building and who had been repeatedly harassed and threatened because of his crusading journalism.

Last month, Oleg Lurye, another investigative journalist, was beaten senseless and slashed across the face with a knife. Nearly two years ago, Lurye broke a story asserting that Pavel Borodin, a former Kremlin official under arrest in New York, had Swiss bank accounts. More recently, he has investigated other high-level officials - and has been receiving anonymous threats warning him to stop.

Also in December, a Novaya Gazeta correspondent in Ryazan named Yelena Denisova was knocked down on the street. A few days later, the Ryazan office was broken into.

These attacks, while terribly disturbing, are unsurprising to Dmitri Muratov, the editor of the paper. Each has occurred for different reasons, with perhaps one thing in common: Novaya Gazeta reporters were threatening too many powerful interests.

"If I were a corrupt official or a bandit," says Muratov, a big, ruddy-faced man with a graying beard, "I would beat up Lurye every day. It's strange it didn't happen sooner. Lurye has very good sources."

Muratov says he cannot comment on Domnikov's death for fear of jeopardizing the investigation. He was a brilliant reporter, he says, killed in the line of duty. Sultanov has been threatened because of his investigations of the oil industry, he says.

Novaya Gazeta, which is published twice a week, was begun by Muratov and several other journalists who had been working for Komsomolskaya Pravda, a popular daily with a circulation of 750,000.

Muratov, 39, graduated from college in 1983 and after two years in the army took his first newspaper job, learning his profession in the heady years of perestroika and glasnost, when the people of the former Soviet Union tasted their first drops of freedom.

As Komsomolskaya Pravda grew flashier and what he calls "melodramatic," Muratov decided to pursue more serious journalism. He wanted to establish a serious investigative newspaper.

"At first we had lots of advertising and offers of help," he says, "but when investors and advertisers realized we were pursuing an independent policy, their interest rapidly evaporated." The paper struggled on. "We didn't promise high salaries," Muratov says. "We promised journalists they would be able to express their own point of view and not the point of view of the owner. And we attracted some of the best pens in the country."

Then came 1996, and President Boris N. Yeltsin's re-election campaign. The oligarchs - Russia's financial barons - bought up newspapers and used them to support Yeltsin and defeat his communist rival, Gennady Zyuganov. In return for their help, the oligarchs were promised sweetheart deals as industries were privatized. Objectivity was in short supply.

Some papers glorified Yeltsin and vilified Zyuganov - in their columns. Others did the opposite.

Novaya Gazeta's attempt to report fairly on the campaign began to attract readers, especially among artists, students, teachers and young professionals. Circulation rose from 7,000 at the beginning of 1996 to 50,000 by the end of the year. Today, it stands at 608,000, Muratov says.

"Readers like our ironic tone and investigations," he says. "We don't criticize the authorities. We watch them and report on them."

Lurye, 37, joined the paper a year ago, leaving Versia - where he broke his first Borodin story - because he said he thought that newspaper was coming under the influence of Moscow Mayor Yuri M. Luzhkov.

"Novaya Gazeta is one of the very few papers that is completely independent," Lurye says, "and the newspaper is one of the most influential. It is creating a political conscience in the country."

Three long scars from the attack Dec. 17 mark the left side of Lurye's face. The night of the attack, he had appeared on the independent NTV television station and discussed his investigations of high-level government officials.

Late at night, he and his wife drove home, his wife at the wheel. At the garage near their apartment building, Lurye got out and opened the doors while his wife drove in. Four large men jumped out of the darkness, slammed the garage doors shut and locked his wife in. He was beaten unconscious by the time his frantic wife rammed the car through the doors. One of the men slashed at Lurye's face with a knife and ran off, never saying a word.

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