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The City of Dead Journalists

Not a very nice title for a city to behold, although throughout history, I have a feeling it could have applied elsewhere. Where ever journalists speak the truth, against powers who would prefer the truth not be known, there is a grave risk, so to speak. Currently, this seems to be the case in a town in Russia, called Togliatti, a city that sits some 1000 km southeast of Moscow. With the ore rich and beautiful Zhiguli Mountains sitting on the horizon, just across the Volga River, Toglatti has in the past, presented the idyllic image of a peaceful, picturesque village. But today, this corner of the world has become part of what the Reporters Without Borders calls the most dangerous place in Europe for Journalists. Since 1995, six men in the "news business" have been murdered here in this city of some 745,000 people, while in Russia as a whole, 13 journalists have been killed since the year 2000.

Founded in 1737, Togliatti was initially named Stavropol and was a fortress designed to protect its people from the Crimean Tarters. Originally, a land of dense pine forests, much has changed in less than three-hundred years. A city of sprawling factories described by some as dirty and desolate, it began its most recent rebirth in 1950, when it became home to the Volga hydroelectic power station, which forced its residents to relocate to the un-submerged portion of land on the other side of the Volga River. It began operations in 1957, and in 1967, AutoVAZ (Volga Automotive Plant), Russia's largest car manufacturer was built.

In the 1990s, during a bit of post-Soviet chaos, AutoVaz became a struggling enterprise. In the midst of that decline , Togliatti became quite a opportunistic haven for "eager, petty," mafia, where bribes to keep certain activities out of the news were large and rampant. It was also a leader in another kind of killings, slayings which were the result of gangs vying for control of criminal activities. With bribes inhibiting investigations and justice, it appeared activities of a criminal nature would continue to thrive in this town named after a longtime Italian communist leader. And then in October of 1996, Valery Ivanov, with help from others, created the Togliatti Review, the city's first independent newspaper. This, obviously, is when something hit the proverbial fan.

As journalists do, this group, who operated behind their masthead, began to search for and publish the truth. Investigative reporting began at earnest and although threatened by both the government and the mafia, Ivanov and his cohorts relentlessly pursued the truth and for six years continued relatively unimpeded. Then in April of 2002, Ivanov was shot and killed while walking to his car. News about corruption, connections, trafficking and other criminal schemes needed to be silenced. The remaining staff disagreed and Alexei Sidorov, an employee for six years took over the reins as editor and the stories continued. Then two weeks ago, on October 9, Sidorov was "stabbed several times with a rough, handmade knife" while walking home and died. As the New York Times stated, it appears that in Togliatti, Freedom of Speech is under the gun.

Well, freedom of speech is always under the gun; it's just a matter of where. These days the headlines seem to place that struggle in a small town near Moscow. I'd never heard of Togliatti until a few days ago, but thanks to the free press which journalists everywhere die for, I won't forget the people of that town anytime soon.

The New York Times;Thursday, Oct. 23, 2002

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