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Paul Klebnikov, the 41-year-old top editor of the Russian edition of Forbes
magazine, was one of the few reporters working at the nexus of post-Soviet politics, big business and the global spread of multi-billion dollar
organized crime conglomerates. His murder in Moscow on July 9th, 2004, was a brutal blow for investigative journalism in Russia. But as long as
it remains a mystery, it also represents a threat to investigative journalism worldwide and a vicious attack on the rule of law.
The account of the first American reporter killed contract-style in Russia never got much traction in the West. It was a story without a Nielsen audience, and convoluted as well, set amid a tangle of Kremlin power struggles, corrupt oligarchs, military and intelligence cabals, embezzlement of foreign aid, Chechen terrorists and Russian organized crime elements ranging from Moscow to Chechnya to London and New York.
Klebnikov once wrote that the corrupt Yeltsin era was the worst disaster to befall the Russian people since the Nazi invasion of 1941. But the present era is as afflicted with secrets and intrigue as any that has come before it. Klebnikov spent his entire career working to expose the hidden interests controlling nearly every aspect of Russian society. The assassination not only silenced his voice but reinforced the idea that violence against journalists is an effective way of maintaining that control. Left unanswered, his death dims the prospect that a free media and revitalized civic institutions can help Russia meet the challenge of systemic corruption.
Few reporters and editors, however, are capable of telling such a difficult tale. The financial and physical risks are enormous. Any Western news organization or individual reporter taking on even one thread of Klebnikov's material must contend with a pair of crippling disabilities: a steep learning curve of exceptionally complicated relationships and the extreme reluctance of sources, whose cooperation could prove fatal. Meanwhile, the otherwise talented and courageous Russian media have witnessed the assassination of a dozen of their colleagues over the past five years. They have yet to see a single killing solved.
So who will take up where Paul Klebnikov left off? The task seems to have fallen to those of us based outside Russia, who can speak out, write and broadcast freely.
Project Klebnikov is a global alliance specifically devoted to developing new information on the Klebnikov murder and to furthering some of the investigative work Paul began. Our reporters and editors are drawn from the full spectrum of international media outlets. (Some of us must remain anonymous, at least for the time being.) Individual journalists will publish and broadcast their own stories via the newspapers, broadcast networks, wire services, news magazines and other media with which they are affiliated. Joint ventures, when feasible, will be encouraged. We will also gather and share background information, documents and leads through a virtual bureau coordinated by a core membership. Alliance members and our website (www.projectklebnikov.org) will be available to Russian colleagues and anyone else with an interest in the case, whether they are journalists, government officials, concerned citizens or sources with information to contribute.
The value of the alliance will lie partly in its collective expertise and the willingness of its members to share a wealth of background information too burdensome for any single news organization to gather. The alliance will increase the attention paid to the Klebnikov case, not only in Russia but in the media markets worldwide where the subjects resonate.
But Project Klebnikovs greatest contribution, we hope, will be the message it sends to those who would literally slaughter the free press. Reporting will move forward regardless of the threat to any one journalist or one media outlet. In that sense, the project will test a model for investigative cooperation among the international media, allowing print and broadcast journalists to tackle other stories where risks and costs must be distributed.
Klebnikov recognized a simple truth about the future: What happens in Russia will affect the daily lives of most citizens of the world. We believe it is time journalism embodied that interconnected ideal as well. This is but a first step.