OPC Denounces "Suicide" Verdict in Death of Another Russian Journalist

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H.E. Dmitri Medvedev
President
Russian Federation
Fax:  (011.7.495) 206.6277/ 5173

H.E. Vladimir Putin
Prime Minister
Russian Federation
Fax:  (011.7.495) 206.4622, 205.4219

Your Excellencies:

Once again, a Russian reporter who has angered government officials has died under mysterious circumstances.  Once again, the authorities have decided -- with no evidence at all, and very little plausibility -- that Olga Kotovskaya committed suicide.  But this time, after her colleagues insisted that the suicide theory was ridiculous and that she must have been murdered in retaliation for her work, the regional prosecutor has re-considered and opened an investigation into the death.  Once again, as so many times in the past, we write to urge you to expend all possible efforts to make sure the investigation is thorough and transparent.  

Kotovskaya's story is clear.  She was a co-founder and former editor-in-chief of the independent Kaliningrad broadcaster, "Kaskad," which had a reputation for objective news reporting, live broadcasts and studio guests who were sometimes critical of regional leaders.  In 2004, a group of local bureaucrats, led by Kaliningrad's former deputy governor, Vladimir Pirogov, seized control of the channel, which immediately stopped criticizing the enclave's administration.  Kotovskaya argued that the take-over had been done on the basis of forged documents.  This past November 15, the Kaliningrad Court of Arbitration upheld Kotovskaya's forgery claims, ruling that her own signature on a document giving her company to its new owners had been forged.

The next day, her body was found on the pavement near a Kaliningrad tower block, according to local media.  She had apparently fallen from a fourteenth-floor window and died instantly.  Local authorities immediately pronounced the death a suicide, provoking outrage from journalists and opposition figures.  They argued that Kotovskaya, the mother of two grown children and the owner of a thriving business that included two independent TV stations, a daily newspaper, two radio stations and a Public Relations agency, had no reason to commit suicide.  She also had no reason to be in the building from which she fell.   But it took two weeks for news of her death to reach press groups outside Russia, and only after that did the prosecutor announce the investigation.  His spokeswoman said it was possible "that she was forced to commit suicide."

Your Excellencies, this case is all too reminiscent of the death of Ivan Safronov, the investigative reporter for the journal, Kommersant, whose exposes of corruption in military contracts made him powerful enemies.  Safronov died in a fall from a fourth-story window in the stairwell of his Moscow apartment building in March, 2006, and was promptly ruled a suicide.  As we have often reminded you, given the circumstances and his colleagues' insistence that he had no reason or disposition to kill himself, if the prosecutors do not release persuasive evidence to support their conclusion, suspicion will persist that Safronov was murdered.

You have both frequently proclaimed your belief in press freedom and promised to protect Russian journalists who try to do their jobs honestly.  But since 2000, when Vladimir Putin took office as president, at least seventeen journalists have been murdered because of their work, or have died under suspicious circumstances.  The killers have been convicted in only one instance.  In every case, the masterminds remain unpunished.  This sorry record of impunity makes a mockery of your promises.  The Overseas Press Club of America, an independent organization that has been defending press freedom around the world for more than seventy years, must conclude that you are either unable or unwilling to keep them.  We still hope that you will prove us wrong.

Thank you for your attention.  We would appreciate a reply.

Respectfully yours,
Larry Martz
Kevin McDermott
Co-chairmen, Freedom of the Press Committee

cc:

Sergey V. Lavrov
Foreign Minister
Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Moscow 121200, Russian Federation Fax:(011.7.495) 244.3448

Ambassador Vitaly Churkin
Permanent Representative
Permanent Mission of the Russian
Federation to the United Nations
136 East 67th Street
New York, NY 10021
Fax: (212) 628.0252

Aleksey K. Simonov
President
Glasnost Defense Foundation
4 Zubovskiy Boulevard, # 432
Moscow 119021, Russia
Fax: (011.7.495) 637.4947

Andrew McChesney
Editor-in-Chief
The Moscow Times
Ul. Polkovaya, 3, Building 1, Moscow 127018 Russia
E-mail: mcchesney@imedia.ru

H.E. Yuriy V. Ushakov
Ambassador of Russia to the U.S.A.
Embassy of the Russian Federation
2650 Wisconsin Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20007
Fax: (202) 298.5735

Mr. Dmitri Peskov
First Dep. Spokesman of the President
of the Russian Federation
c/o Embassy of the Russian Federation
2650 Wisconsin Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20007
Fax: (202) 298.5735

H.E. William J. Burns
U.S. Ambassador to Russia
Embassy of the United States of America
8 Bolshoy Devyatinskiy,

Pereulok Moscow 121099

Russia
Fax: (011.7.495) 728.5090

Mr. Andrey Vitalyevich Vasilyev
Editor-in-Chief
Kommersant Daily
4 Vrubelya Street
Moscow

Russia
E-mail: kommersant@kommersant.ru

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