Three Russian journalists landed one day in late July in the Central African Republic, a former French colony, on the trail of a story. Kirill Radchenko, Alexander Rastorguyev and Orkhan Dzhemal were investigating the activities of a shadowy Russian private mercenary company, Wagner Group, that had reportedly set up camps in the country and is owned by a crony of President Vladimir Putin.
Three days later, the journalists were dead.
They were ambushed by gunfire on a remote road, at night. The facts are murky. The Wagner Group, which also sent forces to Syria, was founded by Yevgeniy Prigozhin, the St. Petersburg catering magnate who also owned the troll factory known as the Internet Research Agency used to interfere in the 2016 U.S. election.
The work of the three courageous journalists was being funded by the Investigations Management Center, supported by exiled Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The three were experienced. Dzhemal was the former political editor of Novaya Gazeta, a hard-hitting investigative newspaper, and had covered wars in Georgia and Ukraine. Rastorguyev was a director known for a documentary on the anti-Putin opposition. Radchenko was an accomplished photographer.
Sadly, the killing and imprisonment of journalists for their work is a scourge worldwide, including the wanton murders in the Capital Gazette newsroom in Annapolis, Maryland. This year alone, 39 journalists have been killed in the line of duty.
Last year, the CPJ counted 262 journalists behind bars because of their work, and about half of all those were in just three countries: Turkey, China and Egypt.
To deter more killings and jailings, it is essential that every case be exposed and those who ordered the abuses be held to account. At its very heart, this violence is aimed at not only the reporters but also their readers.
Censorship is a corrosive tool in the black arts of dictators and autocrats, and violence against journalists is an extreme expression of their determination to smother the truth.