Threats to journalists in Russia have come to the fore with news that three armed men were arrested outside the home of Business Day's correspondent in Moscow, writes the paper in an editorial. It is time the government in that country commits to protecting the media.
IT IS trite to warn people that journalism can be a dangerous trade, but it never ceases to shock when the warning comes true.
Over Christmas, three armed men were arrested outside the home of Business Day's Moscow correspondent, John Helmer. He says police investigating the case have told him that the three worked for a security company called Alpha-Inform and had told them they were acting on behalf of Rusal, the largest Russian aluminium group.
Rusal is controlled by one of that country's most powerful oligarchs, Oleg Deripaska, a man both admired and feared and who has not been allowed into the US since 2003.
The three men, the police have told Helmer, were carrying a dossier on him and his wife, and had their photographs and a sketch of the layout of their Moscow apartment.
So far, Alpha-Inform has conceded that the men are on its payroll but insists they had merely been commissioned by an as yet unnamed client to find out information about Helmer, who writes regularly about Russian business. Rusal denies it had links to the men.
Which is all very well but will be of little comfort to Helmer and, frankly, to us at Business Day as well.
The fact is that journalists do get assassinated in post-Soviet Russia. And Helmer's reporting on Russian business is always tough. He has, for instance, recently been extremely disparaging of a proposed listing by Rusal in Hong Kong and provides critical reporting on the quiet dealings between Russian and South African businesses and banks and between government.
These "dealings" are always complicated and without reporters like Helmer to explain them, vast amounts of money would move around the world (and vast interests bought and suborned) without our knowing anything about them.
Helmer is an Australian citizen and writes for Australian media as well as Business Day. What is unnerving about the threat to him is that it was an Australian diplomat at the foreign ministry's emergency centre in Canberra who first warned him of a possible threat. "We have received information suggesting that your personal security in Russia could be threatened," the diplomat e-mailed Helmer, "…we recommend that you carefully consider your personal security arrangements."
That is a hell of a thing to tell a citizen thousands of kilometres away and who has little hope of defending himself against aggression from any enemy, private or corporate.
Rusal has huge interests in Australia and, so far, very little in SA. But its chairman, Viktor Vekselberg, is well known here. He sits on the presidential investment council and his own company, Renova, has bought manganese interests in this country. He has also been linked to the ANC's investment company Chancellor House.
What is important here is that the Russian government makes a public commitment to protect Helmer and other journalists.
We have written to the Russian ambassador in Pretoria and the South African ambassador in Moscow, drawing their attention to our concerns about the threat to Helmer. Needless to say, we have heard not a word in reply. It is most unsatisfactory and ominous.
* This editorial first appeared in Business Day on 15 January 2010.