Russian Top Human-Rights Journalists Face Threats, Murder

The country’s top human-rights reporters are being threatened and killed in broad daylight—and some think the government is to blame.


Tatayana (Tanya) Lokshina reported on egregious human-rights abuses in Russia for years. Only her close friends knew of the risks she faced working on long trips in conflict regions in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Her priority was to tell the stories of people in trouble, and she never talked about the personal danger she often found herself in. But this week, Lokshina—who is now the deputy director for Human Rights Watch in Moscow and a recipient of the Andrei Sakharov journalism award (Russia’s equivalent of a Pulitzer)—couldn’t keep silent any longer. She invited journalists to a press conference and declared that she was being followed around the city, and that somebody had been sending her text messages threatening to murder her unborn baby.

The author of the text messages seemed well informed about the 39-year-old Lokshina’s upcoming trip to Dagestan, as well as of her pregnancy term, the sex of her baby and her home address—“operative information that could be obtained only by special services,” Lokshina said. One of the text messages arrived right at the moment when her husband’s airplane took off. “Now you are alone,” it said.

There is something seriously wrong in Russia: the country’s most-experienced and famous human-rights reporters are being threatened and killed in broad daylight. Anna Politkovskaya was shot dead in the elevator of her Moscow apartment building in October 2006; Stanislav Markelov and Anastasia Baburova were killed on the street, less than half a mile from the Kremlin, in January 2009. The same year, in August, a group of men kidnapped Natalya Estemirova from her house in Grozny, killed her and left her body on the side of a road. Last December, Khadjimurat Kamalov, a publisher, was shot outside of his Chernovik newspaper office in Dagestan. Each of them had received similar threats prior to the day of their murder.

In a video presented at the press conference, Human Rights Watch’s executive director Kenneth Roth assured the Russian government that “these threats will have precisely the opposite effect—that Human Rights Watch will double our efforts to do our work in Russia, to defend the rights of the Russian people against this crackdown and other threats that they encounter.” He also vowed that the perpetrators behind the threats to Lokshina and her child would be brought to justice. Human Rights Watch has been working in Russia for 20 years, “in much darker times,” Roth said, “and will certainly continue.”

Though the organization said it reported the threats to the Kremlin and law-enforcement agencies, the text messages have not stopped coming. This morning, another HRW employee received a text message threatening that Lokshina’s child would die if Human Rights Watch did not cancel its press conference today. “Nothing is going to change; we are going to continue our usual work,” said Rachel Denber, of the organization’s Europe and Central Asia Division.

The motivation for the murder seems always to be the same: to shut the journalist up, first by threatening to kill—and then, if that doesn’t stop the reporter, with a bullet. It appears that the people ordering the murders know by now that Stalin’s maxim of “nobody is irreplaceable” isn’t true—the dangerous vacant positions are rarely re-filled by new reporters. After the murders of Politkovskaya and Estemirova, fewer journalists feel safe reporting on cases of abduction, torture or extrajudicial killings in Dagestan, Chechnya, and Ingushetia. In the past few years, Lokshina was on a short list of activists who still traveled to the North Caucasus republics to document revenge killings or arson on the homes of accused rebel sympathizers. She reported on dreadful events in Chechnya with her dear friend and colleague Estemirova; the day afterward, Estemirova was shot.

Then, on a winter’s day in 2009, as Lokshina stayed late at her office editing one of her reports, a friend called sobbing. “He died!” The friend was speaking of the famous human-rights lawyer and reporter Stanislav Markelov, who had been gunned down a few blocks away from her. She recalls thinking that night, “we work in areas torn by human troubles and then we return home to Moscow, where we think it should be safe.”

But Moscow was not safe. Almost every weekend, groups of young people showed up outside her door threatening to kill her husband, who was the director of a Moscow-based center that monitors ultra-nationalist activities. But she continued her work with Human Rights Watch, “a necessary group in Russia, because it is important to have an independent source of well-reported information.” This year, Lokshina covered multiple cases of beatings and police abuses during mass protests against President Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Her stories appeared in multiple publications, including Foreign Policy, and on CNN. Meanwhile, some state officials, including Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, publically expressed their contempt for human-rights activists, and the state is considering proposed changes to Russia’s legislation that would require NGOs to register as foreign agents. A Russian delegation also recently slammed human-rights journalists for their reports on the North Caucasus, with Duma deputy Robert Schlegel saying the reports contributed to the public’s negative perception of the situation in the region.

It’s clear that certain groups have an interest in minimizing the number of such reports. “In Lokshina’s case, the threat comes from those whose job it is to push out of Russia the key researcher for Human Rights Watch,” says Alexander Cherkasov, the chair of the Memorial Human Rights Centre. Schlegel countered that the murder of prominent activists “spoils the country’s reputation, as every time, we are accused of not saving [them].”

And for those who wanted to intimidate the pregnant Lokshina, Cherkasov had one message: the activist was always “planning to leave Russia and give birth abroad regardless of their threats.”