Nov. 9 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. called on Russian authorities to find and punish the people responsible for a “heinous” assault on Kommersant newspaper reporter Oleg Kashin.
“A free and independent press is central to a vibrant and well-functioning democracy,” State Department spokesman Philip Crowley told journalists in Washington yesterday, according to a transcript released by the Federal News Service. “Journalists around the world must feel free to do their jobs without fear of intimidation or physical violence.”
Kashin, a political correspondent, was beaten by two men wielding a metal bar wrapped in flowers outside his apartment building in the Russian capital early on Nov. 6, according to the Moscow-based newspaper. Doctors induced a coma to help Kashin recover from his injuries, which included a fractured jaw, skull and fingers.
The attack on Kashin, 30, is the latest in a series of assaults and murders of journalists in Russia in recent years. Most of the cases remain unsolved, including the 2004 murder of Paul Klebnikov, the U.S. editor of Forbes Inc.’s Russian edition, and the 2006 killing of Anna Politkovskaya, who wrote articles critical of the government.
President Dmitry Medvedev called on the Interior Ministry and Prosecutor General’s Office to take the case under their “special control” a few hours after the attack and vowed to find the perpetrators.
“Whoever is responsible for this crime will be punished, regardless of their position,” Medvedev told reporters at a meeting yesterday, according to a transcript posted on the president’s website. The government must guarantee “the right to tell truth about people and events in the country,” he said.
A lawmaker from the ruling United Russia party today introduced a legislative amendment toughening the penalty for attacking a reporter to a maximum of 20 years, with the possibility of life imprisonment in the case of murder.
“Unfortunately, attacks on journalists have become routine and there have been many murders,” Boris Reznik, deputy head of the lower house of parliament’s media policy committee, said by telephone. “Journalists fulfill an important role in society by fighting against corruption and government abuse.”
Eight journalists, many of whom reported critically on the government, have been killed in Russia in the past year, Crowley said. “With one exception, the government has failed to identify, arrest or prosecute any suspects,” he said.
The Committee to Protect Journalists puts the number of murders of journalists in Russia since 2000 at 19. The New York-based advocacy group ranks Russia the eighth-most dangerous country for reporters, after nations including Iraq and Afghanistan.
Another reporter, Anatoly Adamchuk from the independent weekly Zhukovskiye Vesti, was beaten outside his newspaper’s offices in the Moscow region and hospitalized with a concussion yesterday, CPJ said.
Both Kashin and Adamchuk had reported on protests against a planned highway to St. Petersburg that has come under fire from environmental activists who claim the project will irreparably damage the Khimki forest outside Moscow.
Medvedev in August suspended the plan to build a toll road between the capital and St. Petersburg and ordered further studies and public hearings. Some Russian officials, including OAO Russian Railways president Vladimir Yakunin, have called for the construction of the road to go ahead.
Vinci SA, the world’s biggest construction company, on Sept. 18 defended the chosen route for Russia’s first major toll road from Moscow to St. Petersburg, saying the government had provided no alternative proposal. The Rueil-Malmaison, France-based company signed a 60 billion-ruble ($1.9 billion) concession in 2009 to build and operate the initial stretch of the highway.
The latest assaults come two years after the near-fatal beating of a journalist who campaigned against the road. Mikhail Beketov, the editor of a newspaper based in Khimki, had a leg amputated as a result of the attack. Another activist, Konstantin Fetisov, was assaulted with a baseball bat near his house on Nov. 4 and is in serious condition in hospital.
Russian news site Life News posted a graphic video of what it said was Kashin’s assault, showing two men holding down and repeatedly beating the reporter with a heavy bar. The tip of his left little finger was hacked off during the attack, according to Kashin’s wife, Yevgeniya Milova.
Yaroslav Nikitenko, of the Movement to Defend Khimki Forest, said he believed the “same people” were behind the attacks on the activists and Kashin, who had done a lot to publicize the protests against the highway.
“Those who have an interest in the project going ahead are local and federal officials,” Nikitenko said in a phone interview from Moscow.