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Putting the Repression of Russian Journalists in Comparative Perspective – UPDATE

by Gordon M. Hahn

By way of a brief update of an old article, there follows immediately below the most recent list of the most dangerous countries for journalists to operate in for the year 2017, according to the independent internationalist journalists’ rights organization, Reporters Without Borders.


The view that Russia is a cauldron of death for journalists, no less one created by Putin, is at least an outdated one and more accurately an incorrect one. Both the 2017 and 2018 Reporters Without Borders’ annual reports on the most dangerous countries for journalists demonstrate this. The 2017 report listed the countries with largest number of journalists killed:

Syria – 12

Mexico – 11

Afghanistan – 9

Iraq – 8

Phillipines – 4.

The same report listed the countries with the largest number of imprisoned journalists:

China – 52

Turkey – 43

Syria – 24

Iran – 23

Vietnam – 19.

SOURCE: www.rferl.org/a/the-most-dangerous-countries-for-journalists/28927029.html?ltflags=mailer.

The reader might notice that Russia does not appear on either list; a NATO member, Turkey, does. Readers are encouraged to employ the methodology used in my 2010 article below, which adds population proportionality into the mix. The same holds true for the 2018 report (https://cpj.org/data/killed/?status=Killed&motiveConfirmed%5B%5D=Confirmed&type%5B%5D=Journalist&start_year=1992&end_year=2018&group_by=year).

[The article below was originally published in November 2010 as: “Repression of Journalists in Russia in Comparative Perspective,” Russia – Other Points of View, 16 December 2009, www.russiaotherpointsofview.com/2009/12/repression-of-journalism-in-russia-in-comparative-perspective.html.]

American mainstream media produces an inordinately large number of articles highlighting the murders of journalists in Russia.  These articles are in part motivated by, and often include data from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) which does important work on documenting murders, beatings, and imprisonments of journalists across the world.  However, the way the mainstream media uses CPJ’s data is misleading. Most importantly, their list of the 20 ‘deadliest countries’ for journalists does not take into account that many of the countries on the list have few independent journalists to be killed and many off the list who have none – and this is why they do not appear on the list.

Journalistic and analytical articles usually cite the raw figure for the number of killings per country for one year or several, but these data are never put in context.  For example, the size of the population and the number of journalists influences the likelihood of such violence.  The larger the population and the number of journalists in a given country, should increase the likelihood and occurrence of such events.  The more molecules or atoms in a given space, the more often they will collide if in motion.  Similarly the greater the population the more journalists there are likely to be, the more corrupt bureaucrats and businesses to be investigated, more crimes to be exposed and so on.  All this increases the likelihood that someone under investigation by a journalist will use force or use their connections with the state apparatus to shut down investigating journalist’s activities.  Below, Russia Media Watch takes a first step towards incorporating other factors into the calculus by bringing in population size.

A better methodology would also factor in the number of journalists in each country; unfortunately, reliable data for all countries is unavailable.  It would also be good to factor in the population in the years each journalist was killed and produce an average population over the period 1992 through July 2009, the date for which the population figures are relevant.  Regardless of the limits of bringing in the single new factor of country population in order to put the CPJ’s raw data in better context of population, it is more useful to consider this factor than not to.  The results of this factor’s inclusion are included in the tables below.

Russia in Global Comparative Perspective

Simply using the number of killings leaves Russia, with 52 killings since 1992, appearing as one of the world’s worst violators of journalists’ rights and free speech with the fourth highest volume of murdered journalists. When one introduces the country population factor into the CPJ’s list of the “20 Deadliest Countries” for journalists, a rather different picture of Russia appears.  Russia moves from the position of fourth highest volume of murdered journalists to fourteenth in the top twenty on the CPJ list as of December 2009 (see Table 1).


TABLE 1. CPJ Ranking and Number of Journalists Killed since 1992 for Countries Listed in CPJ’s “20 Deadliest Countries” List Compared with Journalists’ Murdered Per Capita for the Population of the Countries Listed on CPJ’s “20 Deadliest Countries” List with an Adjusted Rank.

CPJ Rank.Country                Murders, 1992-2009             Murders/Per Capita*     Adjusted Rank

1.Iraq                                                   141                                 1 per 205,288                      1

2.Philippines                                        67                                 1 per 1,462,337                 12

3.Algeria                                               60                                 1 per 569,636                       6

4.Russia                                                52                                 1 per 2,693,101                  14

5.Colombia                                           42                                1 per 1,086,762                  10

6.Somalia                                              32                                1 per 307,251                        3

7.Pakistan                                             26                               1 per 6,778,575                     17

8.India                                                   26                               1 per 44,541,508                   20

9.Turkey                                               19                               1 per 4,042,396                     15

10.Afghanistan                                    19                               1 per 1,494,526                     13

11.Bosnia                                              19                               1 per 242,812                          2

12.Sri Lanka                                         18                               1 per 1,184,711                    11

13.Mexico                                             18                               1 per 6,178,433                     16

14.Tajikistan                                        17                               1 per 432,303                          5

15.Rwanda                                           16                               1 per 654,580                          7

16.Brazil                                               16                               1 per 12,421,204                   18

17.Sierra Leone                                   16                              1 per 402,503                          4

18.Bangladesh                                     12                              1 per 13,004,240                   19

19.Israel (& Occupied Territories)   10                             1 per 723,370                          8

20.Serbia                                                 8                             1 per 922,417                          9


* Population data is for July 1, 2009 according to the CIA Factbook.

SOURCE: “20 Deadliest Countries,” Committee for the Protection of Journalists, http://www.cpj.org/killed/, accessed December 14, 2009 and CIA Factbook, Central Intelligence Agency, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2119rank.html, accessed December 14, 2009.


A comparison of the CPJ ranking and the per capita rank shows just how much a difference this contextual factor makes.  The rating of democratic but very populous country like India highlights the skewed effect of ignoring the population variable.  Its ranking under the per capita method becomes more commensurate with its relative political comity and respectable record of protecting civil rights.  It also should be noted that some countries that were not included in the top twenty that used CPJ’s simple counting method, would likely surpass India and even Russia among others on the list, if the per capita method were used; Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Latvia among them (see below).  Furthermore, there are numerous other intervening variables.  For example, the entire CPJ ‘20 Deadliest Countries’ list is composed of countries where there has been some significant level of press freedom along with war, most often jihadist insurgencies, or major criminal drug cartel violence.

Comparison with other Post-Soviet States

Simply using the number of killings leaves Russia, with the highest number of journalists killed among the post-Soviet states since 1992, tainting Moscow as the worst violator of journalists’ rights and free speech in the region.  However, when the per capita method is used, Russia emerges as an average post-Soviet country (see Table 2).  The worst


TABLE 2. Number of Journalists Killed Since 1992 in former USSR by Country Listed in Order of Highest Number of Killings Per Capita Population (CPJ Number of Killings since 1992 in brackets if any, CPJ Ranking in List of “20 Deadliest Countries” if any in parentheses)

Rank. Country                                                             Journalist Killings Per Capita

  1. Tajikistan                                                                   1 per 432,303 [17 (14)]
  2. Georgia                                                                       1 per 576,976 [8 (n/a)]
  3. Azerbaijan                                                                 1 per 2,059,668 [4 (n/a)]
  4. Latvia                                                                          1 per 2,231,503 [1 (n/a)]
  5. Russia                                                                         1 per 2,693,101 [52 (4)]
  6. Armenia                                                                     1 per 2,967,004 [1 (n/a)]
  7. Lithuania                                                                   1 per 3,555,179 [1 (n/a)]
  8. Turkmenistan (no independent journalism)      1 per 4,884,887 [1 (n/a)]
  9. Kyrgyzstan                                                                 1 per 5,431,747 [1 (n/a)]
  10. Ukraine                                                                       1 per 9,140,079 [5 (n/a)]
  11. Belarus (almost no independent journalism)     1 per 9,648,533 [1 (n/a)]
  12. Kazakhstan                                                                1 per 15,399,437 [1 (n/a)]
  13. Uzbek (almost no independent journalism)       1 per 27,606,007 [1 (n/a)]
  14. Estonia                                                                        0 [0 (n/a)]
  15. Moldova                                                                      0 [0 (n/a)]

* Population data is for July 1, 2009 according to the CIA Factbook.

SOURCE: “20 Deadliest Countries,” Committee for the Protection of Journalists, http://www.cpj.org/killed/, accessed December 14, 2009 and CIA Factbook, Central Intelligence Agency, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2119rank.html, accessed December 14, 2009.


violators become Tajikistan, Georgia, Azerbaijan. These three countries as well as democratic and NATO member Latvia turn out to have more journalists murdered since 1992 per capita than Russia.

The Imprisonment of Journalists in Russia in Comparative Perspective 

The murder of journalists is actually more prevalent in less authoritarian and weak democratic regimes.  More authoritarian and totalitarian regimes arrest them before they can get very far in their investigations.  Such regimes have tight control over their allies in government and business, usually state-owned or state-controlled and the ruling party’s, clique’s, or junta’s penetration of society is so deep that dissident journalists are uncovered and arrested before they can challenge a protected state elite or economic interest.  This becomes clear when one looks at the CPJ’s list of countries in which journalists are imprisoned and the number imprisoned in each (see the CPJ’s table 3 below).  The top three oppressors are neo-totalitarian China, Iran, and  Cuba.


TABLE 3. CPSJ’s List of Imprisoned Journalists by Country for 2009

SOURCE: Database on Imprisoned Journalists, CPJ, http://www.cpj.org/imprisoned/2009.php, accessed December 14, 2009.


Russia’s lone imprisoned journalist wound find himself in prison in most countries around the world.  Even in some democratic countries he would be judged as having violated the law by calling for the overthrow of the constitutional order and cooperating with terrorists.  Boris Stomakhin, imprisoned in march 2006, wrote numerous articles supporting the Chechen separatists and Caucasus jihadists on their site http://www.kavkazcenter.com.  These jihadists, now calling themselves the Caucasus Emirate, have killed and wounded some six thousand people since the end of the second Chechen conventional war in 2002.

Russian authorities convicted him for the following words: “Let tens of new Chechen snipers take their positions in the mountain ridges and the city ruins and let hundreds, thousands of aggressors fall under righteous bullets! No mercy! Death to the Russian occupiers! … The Chechens have the full moral right to bomb everything they want in Russia.” (Database on Imprisoned Journalists, CPJ, http://www.cpj.org/imprisoned/2009.php, accessed December 14, 2009.)

To conclude, the raw numbers, shorn of context and analysis of intervening variables provide an exceedingly misleading snapshot of the comparative strength or weakness of any particular state’s repression of terrorists.  The raw numbers are often used by the U.S. mainstream media to convey to American readers that Russia is among a handful of grievous violators of journalists’ rights and freedom of speech.  Although that record is not particularly good, it is not nearly as bad as the U.S. mainstream media or the raw numbers would lead one to believe.


This article was published originally in November 2010 as: Gordon M. Hahn, “Putting the Murders of Russian Journalists in Perspective,” Russia Other Points of View, 21 November 2010, http://www.russiaotherpointsofview.com/2010/11/putting-the-murders-of-russian-journalists-in-perspective.html.]

The recent spate of attacks on Russian journalists has sparked indignation in Western mainstream media and rightly so.  These attacks are horrendous acts that cry out for condemnation and real action.  That said, all condemnations are not equal in accuracy or honesty.

Critics want Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to act aggressively to end the perceived, and sometimes real, impunity for the perpetrators of such crimes.  Others explicitly claim or imply, with no evidence available, that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and/or his allies were directly or indirectly involved in such attacks since he came to power in 2000.

Both types of critic often treat violence against journalists as an indicator of Russia’s authoritarianism.  The prevalence of media critiques of Russia in this regard gives the impression that such crimes are somewhat peculiar to it. In contrast to China, Cuba, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and many other countries, including some with which we have working relations, independent journalists are forbidden or far more restricted than they are in Russia.  These countries get considerably less attention than does Russia, where many thousands of investigative journalists ply their trade.

Comparisons also demonstrate that among countries that have independent journalists, Russia has far from the worst record per capita in terms of journalists murdered.  Further it shows that contract and political murders are notoriously hard to solve whether in Moscow, Latin America, North America or Europe. The number of unsolved contract journalists’ murders in Russia during Boris Yeltsin’s presidency clearly outpaced the 20 such crimes during Putin’s eight years as president, and the two of President Medvedev’s tenure.

Russia’s 1990s grew homegrown criminals who rose to power, both politically and in business, quickly learned to kill to get what they wanted during that wild capitalist period. They were/are rich, corrupt––and intent on protecting their acquisitions and others’ properties.  Almost all contract murders in Russia (including journalists) are “ordered” by Moscow and regional criminal groups and/or corrupt officials whose lives or operations are exposed by local journalists. Quite a few of these criminal elements are located far from Moscow and engaged in purely local political and business battles. All have unknown hit men to carry out their dirty work, making these crimes nearly impossible to solve.

Of the 20 Russian journalists’ murdered since 2000, Paul Klebnikov, the Forbes journalist, wrote best-selling books exposing Boris Berezovsky, other wealthy oligarchs, and the chief of the Chechen mafia.  Klebnikov was known to be rather sympathetic toward Putin. His was obviously a contract crime, yet the western media chose to implicate Putin.

It is patently false that none of the twenty murder cases have been solved.  Six, including the recent murder of Novaya gazeta journalist Anastasia Baburova together with human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov in January 2009, have been solved, though not all the ensuing indictments ended in convictions.  Baburova apparently was not a target at all, but rather was killed when trying to stop Markelov’s murderers. Markelov had been an enemy of the neo-fascist camp for years; two members of the prominent neo-fascist group ‘Russkii Obraz’ have been charged with this crime. His murder was feted on neo-fascist organizations’ websites, according to anti-fascist watchdog, the Sova Center.  According to Sova, Russian prosecutions of ultra-rightist crimes are on the rise, and the number of such crimes is on the decline since 2009. Yet this has been virtually ignored by mainstream media in the west.

The murders of Klebnikov, Novaya Gazeta’s Anna Politkovskaya, and Yurii Shchekochikhin, who was also a State Duma deputy, are the only murders of federal significance left unsolved and unpunished.  The last two cases have been extended and reopened, respectively, in recent months.

Although the record suggests Putin downplayed the killing of journalists and may have taken too few steps to put an end to the impunity surrounding many cases, no evidence has surfaced to indicate involvement by Putin or close associates in any of these crimes.

The only possible perpetrator who could be considered politically close to Putin is Chechen President Ramzan Karyrov. However, the Putin-Kadyrov relationship is not at all cozy.  It is more a marriage of political necessity driven by fears of anarchy and increased terrorism in the Caucasus region if a Chechen leader with a less heavy hand and less influence in this jihad-plagued region were brought to power. The courageous Anna Politkovskaya, whose murder still is not solved, was despised by Chechen leadership and Russian neo-fascists for her attacks on them in Russian media. It remains likely that one of these two groups perpetrated this high-profile, unpunished crime.

Since President Medvedev’s inauguration, the Russian leadership has taken a quite different approach when journalists are murdered or beaten.  When Markelov and Baburova were killed, Medvedev immediately sent condolences. He invited Novaya gazeta’s chief patron, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and the paper’s editor to the Kremlin, and then gave an interview to this opposition paper.  Similarly, Medvedev emerged within hours after the recent attack on Kommersant journalist Oleg Kashin strongly condemning the crime and declaring that it would be solved and the perpetrators brought to justice. Medvedev’s recent separation of the Investigative Committee from the General Prosecutor’s Office gives indication that he plans to reverse Russia’s less than sterling record of solving such crimes. All this deserves reporting, and readers deserve the whole story and full context on this subject.


About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Analyst at Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation (Chicago), http://www.geostrategicforecasting.com; member of the Executive Advisory Board at the American Institute of Geostrategy (AIGEO) (Los Angeles), http://www.aigeo.org; and Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California.

Dr. Hahn is the author of the forthcoming book from McFarland Publishers Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the ‘New Cold War. Previously, he has authored three well-received books: The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction Publishers, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.

Dr. Hahn has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia. He has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution. Dr. Hahn also has been a Contributing Analyst for Russia Direct (russia-direct.com) and an Analyst and Consultant for Russia – Other Points of View (San Mateo, California) (www.russiaotherpointsofview.com).

1 comment

  1. There is also the issue that many local politicians/businessmen in the big cities run their own newspapers. The papers operate as scandal sheets to dig up dirt on their competition. The investigative reporters sometimes dig up material that prompts the other side to kill them. This is a problem of law and order not freedom of the press. There is in fact more such press investigation in Russia than in many Western European countries.

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