MOSCOW – A U.S.-based media watchdog on Tuesday blamed Russian authorities for a "devastating record of injustice" in failing to solve the murders of 16 journalists killed since 2000.
The Committee to Protect Journalists released a report saying that Russia has become the world's third deadliest country for the news media, exceeded only by Iraq and Algeria.
"This is a record of spectacular failure," group board member Kati Marton told reporters. "The enormity of the problem is inescapable."
The government did not immediately issue a reaction. The report said "systematic failures have created a devastating record of injustice. Probing journalists — often shunted to media with limited audiences — are isolated, undervalued and vulnerable to attack."
The slain journalists worked for media outlets of various size and circulation as editors, photographers, reporters, columnists. All were critical of either the government, law enforcement agencies, businesses or criminal groups, the report said.
Investigations were marred by external influence, concealed evidence, bogus charges and intimidation of jurors, it said.
"Paradoxically, if the murders were criminal and their victims were average people, the crimes would have been solved long ago," Marton said.
The report said critical journalism in Russia is almost "extinct" as media outlets increasingly resort to self-censorship and most Russians get "government-filtered" news.
"I tend to blame the position of the current government," prominent rights defender and former Soviet dissident Lyudmila Alexeyeva said. "One cannot say that the killings were sanctioned from the very top, but the very atmosphere in the country makes them possible."
Although high-profile killings of Russian journalists date back to the 1991 Soviet collapse, the report titled "The Anatomy of Injustice" analyzed only the cases since 2000 — the year when Vladimir Putin, Russia's prime minister, was elected president.
Critics say that during Putin's eight-year presidency, Russia has witnessed a steady rollback of media and political freedoms. Top independent television stations have been shut down or put under government influence and print media have also experienced growing official pressure.
Putin's successor, Dmitry Medvedev, who positioned himself as a cautious liberal, has recently criticized the stifling of political freedoms and promised judicial reforms.
Russia's Supreme Court this month ordered a reopened investigation into the 2006 killing of reporter and Kremlin critic Anna Politkovskaya. Three men tried for the murder were acquitted by a jury this year, and it remains unclear who was behind the killing.
This year alone, three reporters have been killed or died of injuries.
In July, Natalya Estemirova, a human rights defender and journalist who exposed rights abuses in Chechnya was abducted and shot. Her colleagues blamed the killing on Chechnya's Kremlin-backed leader.
In January, journalist Anastasia Baburova and human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov were gunned down in broad daylight in central Moscow. In April, Sergei Protazanov, a page designer with a small suburban newspaper in Moscow that reported alleged fraud in local mayoral elections, died after being severely beaten, his colleagues said.