Fri, Oct 24, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Danger part of Russian journalists' job description

PRESS UNDER PRESSURE Thirteen journalists have been killed across the country since 2000. `They can't kill us all,' one editor said before he was stabbed to death

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , TOGLIATTI, RUSSIA

"The City of Dead Journalists" one Moscow newspaper has dubbed this auto industry capital on the Volga River. Freedom of speech, it seems, is under the gun.

For the second time in 18 months, the staff of the Togliatti Review, a newspaper known for muckraking articles about the deadly post-Soviet intersection of politics, business and organized crime, gathered at a local cemetery to bury an editor in chief.

Since 1995, six men who owned or ran local media outlets have been killed here, 800km southeast of Moscow.

Across Russia, 13 journalists have been killed since 2000, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Reporters Without Borders calls the country the most dangerous place in Europe for journalists.

This time, colleagues came to the cemetery to commemorate Alexei Sidorov, 31, who died after being stabbed outside his apartment building on 13 Communist Street on Oct. 9.

"They can't kill us all," Sidorov had said after his friend and predecessor, Valery Ivanov, the founder of Togliatti Review, was shot dead in April 2002 in a still unsolved murder.

Rimma Mikharyeva, the deputy editor, admitted that the latest funeral will affect reporting. "I can't say we have fear in our hearts," she said in the newspaper's cramped offices on Lenin Street, "but we have a sense of `Who will it be tomorrow?' You begin to think about whether it's worth writing so sharp-ly, maybe some fact shouldn't be used."

Her new boss is Igor Izotov, whose first directive to his staff was to forbid use of sources connected with the criminal world. He refuses to hire a bodyguard -- for now -- but he is certain the newspaper is still a target.

"The authorities here have not been able to root out crime," he said. "There is a big circle of people interested in us not being here, and a big circle of people interested in us being weak."

Togliatti's mayor, Nikolai Utkin, worries that the killings mar the city's reputation, but says: "It would be funny to provide every journalist with a bodyguard. I can't say that every journalist is in danger."

Journalistic peril is not the image this city of 745,000 would like to project as it climbs out from under the rubble of more than a decade of bloody, organized crime wars over Avtovaz, the auto plant, and its lucrative market.

Signs of the new Russia abound here: from a joint venture between GM and Avtovaz, to new churches, a tennis club that appears airlifted out of Bel-Air, modern movie theaters, mobile phones and shopping malls. These riches gleaned from the auto industry even overshadow Soviet-era apartment blocks and the fumes of chemical plants, the city's other main industry.

Yevgeny Novozhilov, the deputy regional prosecutor in charge of investigating Sidorov's murder, points out that the number of contract killings has dropped from about one a week three years ago, to five so far this year.

In a flurry of announcements after Sidorov's death, top Russian officials vowed to find his killers. Boris Gryzlov, Russia's interior minister, said solving the case is a "matter of honor," then announced that the "commonplace crime" had been solved with the arrest of a 29-year-old factory worker.

A regional police official said earlier that Sidorov had provoked his own death by failing to share a drink with his alleged killer.

The editors at Togliatti Review dismiss these statements as attempts to write off a more serious crime.

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