BOB GARFIELD: In April of 2002, in the Russian city Togliatti, a newspaper editor was shot to death in his car. Valery Ivanov was murdered following a series of stories in the Togliatti Observer exposing ties among the local Mafia, businesses and corrupt law enforcement agencies in the region. Although shocking, the assassination wasn't necessarily out of the ordinary. Ivanov was the sixth journalist targeted in Togliatti since 1995 -- killings documented in the film The Russian Newspaper Murders, to air as part of the PBS Wide Angle series this week. Director Paul Jenkins originally planned to focus on the Ivanov murder, but by the time he had raised money for filming, the new editor of the Togliatti Observer, Alexei Sidorov, had become victim number seven, stabbed to death on his own doorstep. Predictably, Jenkins tells us, the local authorities leaped into action by arresting an innocent man.
PAUL JENKINS: Within a matter of days, the local police found a factory worker who they say committed the crime as a kind of act of street hooliganism, and it seems to me that the only evidence they have against that man is his own confession to the police. His family told us that he'd been beaten up in the police cells. In fact, the police refused to have a medical examination of the suspect immediately after he gave his confession, so you know, the business seems very murky indeed.
BOB GARFIELD: An astonishing portion of your film is devoted to a man named Karen Nersisyan, who was a, a lawyer brought in to investigate the investigation, and he faces an amazing array of bureaucratic obstacles.
PAUL JENKINS: The Glasnost Defense Foundation, which is a Russian charity representing the interests of journalists paid for Nersisyan to go down and represent the families of the two murdered editors. We filmed them over a period of three days, and we just got remarkable evidence, and I think for Nersisyan we were useful because our camera gave him a chance to actually record the testimony that he was unlocking as he went around the town. The case where we took the two witnesses giving the guy who's currently on trial an alibi -- when we brought those witnesses or rather Nersisyan brought those witnesses down to the local head of investigation into the murder, and he refused to see those two witnesses, to even talk to them for five minutes, we, we were actually secretly recording at that stage. It would be naive to think that sometimes there aren't very powerful interests involved in some of these murders, and it seemed to me, certainly, that we were into quite serious business.
BOB GARFIELD: Were you at risk or - and your crew?
PAUL JENKINS: I went back to Moscow after three days with two tapes that had the alibi, that you know, the witnesses for the alibi, and you know -but I thought this is pretty hot stuff - I think I better get this down to the BBC office, get it copied and get it out of the country. Well, as we're driving down the road to the BBC office, my vehicle's rammed from behind on a 6-lane highway -- you know, and it's one of those things where you never know, you know, is it an accident, you know, is it a set up -quite what's going on you know. [LAUGHS] You don't want to be kind of Walter Mitty-esque about this, but on the other hand, no one's under any illusions on how dangerous it is to, to name names in criminal industrial political corruption.
BOB GARFIELD: One of the most depressing aspects of this film is that after the murder of two editors, number three, the third editor, who came from the finance department of the newspaper, takes over and backs away from the very investigative reporting that had gotten these journalists in trouble.
PAUL JENKINS: Yeah. Well, I actually met the editor about a week after the murder of Sidorov, and you know he told me privately I'm going to scale down the criminal coverage of the newspaper, but his problem was he couldn't tell his staff that, because you know, you have a committed corpus of journalists who are very passionate about what they do, and you know if the new editor comes and says we're going to change the way we do business around here, you have a mutiny on your hands.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, if I'm in the Togliatti Mafia, I say to myself, well, job well done - you have succeeded.
PAUL JENKINS: Yeah, it's depressing, isn't it. I mean the fact is that in Russia you can commission a murder very cheaply, and you can be almost certain that you'll never be caught.
BOB GARFIELD: If not the actual murders and the shoddy investigations thereof, maybe the most upsetting thing about this film is that the Togliatti Review is almost alone in doing the kind of digging and asking the kind of questions and making the kind of accusations that it made, and that the rest of the Russian press you portray in your film as being just utterly quiescent and incurious and non-confrontational. How bad is it?
PAUL JENKINS: I think it's extremely serious. I think the basic problem is that the highest authorities in Russia don't really understand the value of a free media. Unfortunately Russian traditions of leadership don't encourage a view that in fact the media can act as a really positive force in society. As Putin says, you know, Russia's never had a free media, so I don't see what I'm supposed to be impeding.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Paul. Well I think we'll leave it there. Thank you very much.
PAUL JENKINS: Okay, thanks Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Paul Jenkins directed the Russian Newspaper Murders. It airs this week on the PBS series Wide Angle. [MUSIC]