Dangerous Professions: Journalism in Central Asia & the Caucasus

by Joshua Foust on 11/1/2007 · 6 comments


Since the Fall, the Former Soviet Union has seen a shocking number of dissidents and reporters murdered: over 31 37 by my count. Naturally, the vast majority of the murderers remain eternal mysteries unless an appropriate scapegoat is found, but let’s be frank: it is no surprise that countries run by the KGB, or by the same old Soviet officials and chieftans behave like… the KGB, or the old Soviet system. So in honor of the recent murder of Alisher Saipov (movingly eulogized here), I decided to take a brief look into what happens when journalists investigate the powerful in Central Asia and the Caucasus.

The few independent papers and TV stations left that have not been either outright nationalized or purchased by state mega-corporations are in a precarious position. Reporting on the endemic corruption and organized crime in the FSU is a shockingly dangerous occupation. After a few hours of digging, I found so many reporters that have been murdered in one way or another, and either obvious non-suspects (like homeless people from other cities) were named as perpetrators, or they remained unsolved, it was difficult to finish. There were some weird trends, like how the Russians tend to be bludgeoned, or the Kazakhs tend to get run over by cars.

I don’t know if this list is anywhere near comprehensive (in fact, I’m certain it isn’t), even though it mostly covers murders only since 2000—information on journalist murders before that is really difficult to find without a lot more time to investigate, and I have a day job. If I missed anyone, I would like to know who so I can add him or her to the list.

Almost as depressing as knowing they were murdered for exposing the corruption in their society is how hard it was to dig up their pictures… almost as if they didn’t exist. Forgetting is the worst kind of murder. If anyone has pictures, I would love to have them.

These are the men and women who were cut down exposing the rot in their socities. They are heroes.

Azerbaijan (1)

 Elmar Huseynov, 03/02/2005. Opposition journalist, gunned down in the stairwell of his apartment building in Baku.

Georgia (4)

 Georgiy Gongadze, disappeared 09/16/2000, found decapitated and doused in acid 11/03/2000. He was investigating corruption in Ukrainian President Kuchma’s administration.
[no picture]  Georgy Chanya, 05/26/1998. Killed by Georgian forces while covering the fighting in Abkhazia.
 Antonio Russo, 10/17/2000. Italian radio journalist, killed outside of Tblisi while covering war in Chechnya.
 Georgiy Sanaya, 07/26/2001. Popular radio host shot in the head in his own home.

Kazakhstan (7)

[no picture]  Alexei Pugayev, 01/04/2002. Co-publisher of opposition newspaper Eurasia, known for strongly criticizing President Nazarbayev and his cronies, he was run over by a car and later died.
[no picture]  Nuri Muftah, 11/17/2002. Correspondent of the opposition newspaper Respublika 2000 and editor of the weekly Altyn Gasyr in the oil town of Atyrau, he was pushed in front of a bus.
 Askhat Sharipzhan, 07/20/2004. Independent journalist who worked mainly on the Internet, he was, like so many other opposition journalists, killed by a car whilst crossing the street.
[no picture  Batyrkhan Darimbet, 06/07/2005. Editor of the opposition weekly Azat, killed in a hit-and-run “accident” that was never solved.
 Altynbek Sarsenbayev, 02/2006. Opposition leader, found shot dead in his car along with his driver and a bodyguard.
 Oralgaisha Omarhanova, missing since 03/30/2007. A journalist based in Astana, she was investigating the deadly fighting between Kazakhs and ethnic Chechens; she has not been seen since expressing her concern over several death threats.
[no picture]  Saken Tauzhanov, 08/02/2007. A fierce critic of both the government and the opposition, he too was mysteriously killed by a car.

Kyrgyzstan (2)

 Ernis Nazalov, 09/15/2003. Body found in Osh province, covered in bruises and with head trauma.
 Alisher Saipov, 10/24/2007. Reporting in Uzbek from Kyrgyzstan and smuggling papers into Uzbekistan, he was gunned down for a reported $10,000 bounty. He had said he was disappointed it was so small.

Russia (22):

 Igor Domnikov, 7/16/00. Reporter from same paper as Anna Politkovskaya. Beaten over the head in front of his apartment building, after being mistaken for Oleg Sultanov, who lived in the same building and had been targeted.
  Sergey Novikov, 7/26/00. Radio DJ loudly critical of the government. Shot four times in his own stairwell.
 Iskandar Khatloni, 9/21/00. Reporter for Tajik language RFE/RL, and reported on human rights abuses in Chechnya (a sadly common theme). Attacked by an axe in his apartment.
 Sergey Ivanov, 10/3/00. Director of independent TV company, known for its influence in local politics. Shot five times in the head and chest in front of his apartment.
 Adam Tepsurgayev, 11/21/00. Reuters reporter covering the Chechen conflict. Shot at a neighbor’s house.
 Eduard Markevich, 9/19/01. Local reporter who was vocal critic of local officials. Shot in the back on his way to work.
 Natalia Skryl, 3/8/02. Investigative reporter covering corrupt local businesses. Found near her home with a massive head injury.
[no picture]  Sergei Kalinovsky, unknown date of death. Disappeared 12/14/01, body discovered 4/1/02. Reporter on local crime and politics, disappeared 12/14/00 after saying he was going “to an important meeting.” His body was covered in bruises, and his apartment was later destroyed by an unknown arsonist.
 Dmitry Shvets, 4/18/03. Director-general of independent TV station in Murmansk, reporting on local corruption and embarrassing politicians. Gunned down outside his station’s offices.
 Valery Ivanov (on left), 4/29/02. Investigating criminal gang linked to Lada factory. Found with multiple automatic gunshot wounds in his car in front of his home.
 Alexei Sidorov, 10/19/03. Known for exposés on organized crime, mysteriously knifed during a random street fight by an unidentified assailant outside a bar.
[no image]  Maksim Maksimov, disappeared 06/29/2004. He was investigating the murder of several politicians and businessmen, including Galina Starovoytova.
 Paul Khlebnikov, 7/9/04. American investigative journalist working for Russian Forbes, opposed to the intersection of the mafia and government in Moscow. Killed in drive-by shooting outside his office.
[no image]  Pail Peloian, 07/17/2004. An Armenian journalist working for an art and literature magazine, he was found by the side of a highway beaten, stabbed, with a crushed skull and bruises over his face. His passport and money were still on his body.
 Pavel Makeev, 5/21/05. Investigated organized crime, murdered while investigating illegal drag racing. Body found dragged by car and his camera was stolen.
 Magomedzagid Varisov, 6/28/05. Reported on local crime and terrorism, and wrote against the opposition in Dagestan. Shot as he was being driven home with his wife.
 Vagif Kochetkov, 1/8/06. Repeatedly clubbed in the back of head after publishing a report on a drug ring in the city of Tula. He died two weeks later of massive head trauma.
 Ilia Zimin, 2/26/06. NTV reporter who used hidden cameras to look into hygiene at Moscow restaurants. Found face down in pool of blood with blunt force trauma to the head.
 Yevgeny Gerasimenko, 7/26/06. Part-time investigative journalist opposed to local corruption. Found with plastic bag over face, body showed evidence of torture.
 Anna Politkovskya, 10/7/06. Human rights activist, opposition to atrocities in Chechnya and presidency of Vladimir Putin. Shot in her apartment building.
 Anatoly Voronin, 10/16/2006. Business chief of ITAR-TASS, found knifed inside his own apartment as part of a suspected dispute.
 Ivan Safronov, 03/02/2007. Military affairs correspondent for Kommersant, he was a critic of the Russian military, and fell five stories from his third floor Moscow apartment.

Turkmenistan (1)

 Ogulsapar Muradova, 09/14/2006. RFE/RL correspondent, held in prison for years by regime; identified by family members in the as suffering a large head wound.

It is worth remembering these are only those journalists who were unlucky enough to be murdered for their work. It does not include the further dozens upon dozens who have been physically assaulted and/or imprisoned (for only a recent accounting, see Ms. Boyd).

I want to offer my sincere thanks to Reporters Sans Frontières, the World Association of Newspapers, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and RFE/RL for publicizing the various accounts and photographs of these slain heroes.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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That Armchair Philosopher November 1, 2007 at 10:16 am

Wow. Thats a pretty interesting, if unfortunate set of statistics. I wonder which other country comes close when it comes to suddenly silencing the fourth estate and their reps..

Joshua Foust November 1, 2007 at 11:33 am

Off the top of my head, Iraq, Colombia, and Mexico have really high journalist murder rates. There may be others.

Frank November 1, 2007 at 1:20 pm

Georgiy Gongadze was found decapitated in 2000 in Ukraine and the lethargy and inaction on the part of the Kuchma government (Kuchma was directly and personally implicated in the murder) was a fairly major factor in the Orange Revolution.

Laurence November 1, 2007 at 3:16 pm

Josh, Thank you for the informative post. But isn’t something missing? What about Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan? Were no journalists killed in those countries during the past year?

Joshua Foust November 1, 2007 at 8:41 pm

Frank, thank you – I added him. I also found some more Russians who had been murdered.

Laurence, I found one RFE/RL reporter who died in a Turkmeni jail last year, and it looked enough like murder (i.e. her family reported seeing head wounds at the morgue) for me to include it here. But otherwise, I couldn’t find any outright murders in either Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan, at least none as brazen as the Kazakh or especially Russian journalist deaths. Considering its population, I find Kazakhstan’s journalist murder rate especially high.

Also, remember, this doesn’t include instances of wrongful imprisonment, harrassment, beatings, torture, maiming, or forced exile. That list is far too large for me to recount here.

klaus November 2, 2007 at 12:00 am

hey now,
gongadze was georgian, but he was investigating corruption in UKRAINIAN president’s administration.

thanks for the list BTW

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