Journalists ambushed in CAR during investigation of Russian mercenaries

Flowers brought to the Central House of Journalists in Moscow in memory of three Russian journalists killed in the Central African Republic. Photo: Sergei SavostyanovTASS via Getty Images.

At a little past 10pm on Monday, July 30, veteran Russian war correspondent Orkhan Dzhemal, director Alexander Rastorguyev, and cameraman Kirill Radchenko died on a stretch of road a dozen or so miles from the city of Sibut, the administrative center of the Central African Republic’s Kemo Prefecture. They were shot by armed assailants on their third day in the country chasing a dangerous, highly sensitive story about private mercenaries and international influence.

Dzhemal and his crew were sent to CAR by the Investigations Management Center, a media organization owned by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an exiled Russian oligarch and outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime. On Monday, the Russian Foreign Ministry quickly confirmed the deaths, although it claimed it didn’t know the three men were in the country.

“These were brave men who were not prepared simply to collect documentary material, but wanted to ‘feel’ it in the palms of their hands,” Khodorkovsky wrote in a release confirming the deaths on Monday. “I hoped until the last moment that they had been captured, and that they could be rescued.”

Khodorkovsky explained that the team was working on a documentary about the Wagner Group, a private military force reportedly financed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch colloquially known as “Putin’s Chef” because of his catering businesses and close ties to the Russian president. Prigozhin is also the financial backer for the Internet Research Agency, the social media “troll factory” implicated in numerous fake news campaigns during the 2016 election. The Wagner Group is believed to be part of a Russian military and civilian detachment assigned to train CAR’s military, which has been fighting a bloody civil war since 2013, when a loose organization of Muslim-majority rebels known as Seleka briefly toppled Christian president François Bozizé. Russia received UN permission to equip and train the CAR’s military in 2017, and sent 170 civilian contractors and five military personnel to the country to train local forces in the use of their new weapons and provide security for humanitarian projects, according to a UN panel report. The Wagner Group is often compared to Academi, the private military force formerly known as Blackwater, which was deployed to protect US business and military interests throughout the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, although the Russian government denies that Wagner mercenaries act on its orders.   

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The constantly shifting conflict lines in CAR have muddied even basic details of the attack—where the journalists were going, and why they were attacked—which have filtered in through wire services and Russian and Central African media sources. And Wagner’s presence in the country has cast the journalists’ violent deaths in an even more sinister light.

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Though it’s unclear whether the murders were tied to the journalists’ investigative work, their colleagues are suspicious. “This was done in a very demonstrative fashion,” Andrei Konyakhin, the chief editor of Khodorkovsky’s Investigations Management Center, told the Associated Press. Konyakhin said he was skeptical that the attack was a simple robbery. “If they could have just taken everything from them, why kill them?”

The team’s time in CAR had gotten off to a rocky start, according to interviews with their colleagues at the Investigations Management Center reported by the Russian TV network Rain. On Saturday, their first day in the country, the group attempted to visit the military contractor’s base on the Berengo estate, 40 miles or so southwest of Bangui, but were denied access. They then made plans to leave the capital and travel to the village of Bambari, 250 miles away from the capital and outside of government-held territory, to meet a fixer named Martin who could assist them with filming. On Sunday, before they left the capital, a police officer stopped the team and extorted a bribe, which colleagues say shook the journalists’ trust in their driver, who also served as their interpreter. But they set off regardless, on a drive they estimated could take several days, taking with them around $8,500 worth of cash and equipment, including their cameras. This was the last contact they had with the Investigations Management Center.

 

Though it’s unclear whether the murders were tied to the journalists’ investigative work, their colleagues are suspicious.

 

It’s unclear as to whether the team made it to Bambari, but it seems unlikely based on where and when they were found. Several reports compiled by the independent Russian site Bell suggest that Dzhemal’s team were actually returning to the Sibut area, which is under government control, from the city of Kaga-Bandoro in rebel-held territory to the north of Sibut. The drive from Sibut to Kaga-Bandoro is about 100 miles down a central road between the two cities, which journalists who have worked in the region told CJR would take several hours in daylight and good conditions. Bambari, where their colleagues believed they were traveling, is roughly 110 miles due east of Sibut, but not on the way to or from Kaga-Bandoro. It’s also possible that the journalists were killed on the road to Kaga-Bandoro after leaving Sibut (not returning to it), as a government official in Sibut reportedly cautioned them to stay off the roads at night on Monday evening.

“Security forces in charge told them not to go because it was already dark,” Marcelin Yoyo, a deputy official in Sibut, told The Guardian. “They were kidnapped by about 10 men, all turbaned and speaking only Arabic,” he said, although it’s unclear if he was relying on the driver’s account or other sources.

In the morning, local authorities found three caucasian bodies and a bullet-riddled car about 14 miles north of Sibut, and took them to the UN mission hospital in the city. The driver, who survived the ambush, told the Agence France-Presse that all three journalists were shot immediately, but a later report on PalmaresCentrafrique, a French-language news blog, suggested that the trio were kidnapped and interrogated before being killed. The PCA article reported that the perpetrators were members of the FPRC, a Seleka rebel group who control the city of Dekoa, which is halfway between Kaga-Bandoro and Sibut. The PCA article attributed this information to unnamed “sources,” and also (a warning to sensitive readers) published a graphic photo of two of the journalists’ bodies, which were identified by family and colleagues as Dzhemal and Rastorguyev. Radchenko’s body does not appear in the photo.

CAR is statistically less risky for journalists that other active war zones, such as the battlefields of Eastern Ukraine, Syria, and Libya, where Dzhemal and some of his crew had worked before. Since 1992, when CPJ started recording data, only one foreign journalist, freelance photographer Camille Lepage, has been killed in the country.

 

Since 1992, when CPJ started recording data, only one foreign journalisthas been killed in the country.

 

Jonathan Rozen, an Africa Researcher for CPJ, says CAR minister of communication Ange Maxime Kazagui offered few details about the attackers, only confirming that they spoke neither French nor Sanga, CAR’s two national languages, based on information from the driver.

A journalist familiar with the region, who asked not to be named for safety reasons, tells CJR that while travel at night could be risky, the journalist had taken the road north of Sibut multiple times, and that the route wasn’t typically known for militia activity by Seleka groups or pro-government anti-balaka guerillas. But Rozen tells CJR that both the CAR military and UN peacekeeping forces had recently stepped up patrols in the area where the attack took place due to security concerns.

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The Wagner Group’s goals in CAR are unclear. Ouest France reported that Sibut is home to a battalion of CAR’s official military that is equipped and trained by Russians, and that Wagner employees may be on site. In December, the UN security council granted Russia permission to supply small arms to the CAR’s official government in the country’s civil war. The Wagner Group’s involvement in CAR hasn’t been officially recognized by either country, but they are likely part of the 170 civilian instructors Russia sent to train pro-government forces following the arms deal in 2017.

In recent years, Wagner has cropped up in conflict zones across the Russian sphere of influence, fighting on behalf of separatist rebels in Eastern Ukraine and bolstering the ranks of pro-government forces loyal to Bashar Al-Assad in Syria. While Wagner is a private company with no official connection to the Russian government, The New York Times notes that it is regularly used to advance Russian objectives in situations where the government cannot or is reluctant to send regular troops.

In CAR, analysts suspect that Wagner carries out operations in areas across the country, and may not be confined to government-held areas. CI Team, a Russian open-source conflict analysis group, wrote extensively about Wagner’s presence in CAR when mercenaries first began appearing in April. On Tuesday, the group alleged that Dzhemal, Rastorguyev and Radchenko may have been in the Sibut or Kaga-Bandoro area to look into Wagner activities on the other side of the country’s sectarian divide, in Seleka rebel territory. CI Team said they had reason to believe that the civilian contractors were playing both sides of the conflict to give Russian businesses access to the rich mining deposits in rebel-controlled areas like Kaga-Bandoro.

“While it’s possible the journalists were killed for their work, it is also likely that they were indeed killed in a highway robbery,” the group wrote on Twitter. “We may never know why or how they died.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists, in a release published on Wednesday afternoon, called for an immediate investigation into the deaths by authorities from CAR, Russia and the UN, and for the perpetrators to be brought to justice.

The Russian Foreign Ministry and Russian state media sources have embraced the narrative of robbery and rebel violence in a chaotic region. The Washington Post reports that a “Russian expert on Africa” told state news agency RIA Novosti that the killings were a “typical robbery amid the overall conflict,” and that Komsomolskaya Pravda, a Russian tabloid, went further, floating the idea that Western powers were responsible for the murders. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova focused on the reporters’ decision to enter the country on tourist visas to keep a low profile and their failure to seek security advice from the Russian embassy. “What they were really doing in C.A.R., what their goals and tasks were, is an open question,” she wrote, according to the Post.

Neither Konyakhin, the Investigations Management Center editor, nor its backer Khodorkovsky, have released any details as to the nature of the three journalist’s investigation into Wagner. But friends and colleagues of the journalists say they were accustomed to the risks of working in conflict zones.

“It sure seems like a hell of a coincidence that all four Russian investigative journalists that turned up dead in the last few months were investigating Wagner,” Julia Ioffe, a longtime Moscow correspondent who knew Dzhemal personally, tells CJR, referring to the death of Maksim Borodin, a Russian investigative journalist who fell from his fifth-floor apartment balcony in April. Borodin was investigating Wagner’s involvement in Syria, where the mercenaries are believed to have been involved in a bloody, four-hour firefight with US special forces. Authorities did not open a criminal investigation into his death, which was ruled an accident or suicide.

Anna Nemtsova, The Daily Beast’s Moscow correspondent, tells CJR that Dzhemal, a Russian Muslim and an immensely knowledgeable expert on the Islamic rebel groups in the Caucasus, was renowned for his reporting in Libya, Syria, Ukraine, and Dagestan. Nemtsova says that Dzhemal never stopped working, pushing through a severe shrapnel injury sustained in Libya in 2011 that nearly cost him his leg, and described him reporting on the front lines in Ukraine while walking with a cane. In 2016, Dzhemal was captured by members of Al-Nusra Front, a radical jihadist group in Syria, and eventually released. He worked a string of staff jobs, including covering the Russian invasion of Georgia for Russian Newsweek and writing for Izvestia, one of Russia’s longest-running broadsheet papers, but after losing the latter job Nemtsova says Dzhemal was forced into the competitive, demanding market for freelance work, which often leaves journalists pursuing big stories for low pay with scant resources and preparation.

 

Dzhemal never stopped working, pushing through a severe shrapnel injury sustained in Libya in 2011 that nearly cost him his leg.

 

Ioffe says Dzhemal’s recent work in Syria focused on young Russian muslims who had migrated from Islamic insurgencies in Russia to join the Islamic State, many of whom came from communities Dzhemal held dear.

“There’s a tradition in Russia where reporters aren’t just reporters. A lot of them are also activists, and try to help their subjects,” Ioffe says. “As he was reporting on these families [of Islamic fighters], he was also trying to help them. He could be extremely gruff and matter-of-fact, but he was also very compassionate and sensitive to these family’s needs.”

Rastorguyev, the director, was also a experienced journalist known for his incisive political films covering Russian political opposition to Putin’s regime.

“He was a brilliant filmmaker who saw the beauty and hilarity in ordinary life,” says Natalia Antonova, a Russian-American writer who knew Sasha personally. “He was interested in his heroes—as opposed to treating them like animals in the zoo, which is what less gifted documentary directors do. His death is a tragedy for both journalism and art.”

Radchenko, the team’s cameraman, was less well-known to the Moscow press corps, but had covered heavy fighting in Syria, Nemtsova says, and publicly expressed support for reporters detained by authorities during domestic protests.

For members of the Russian independent press, Nemtsova says, the deaths are a heavy blow. “We are really exhausted of going to funerals of journalists,” says Nemtsova.

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Jack Crosbie is a freelance journalist based in New York, who has reported on conflict, technology, food, and sports from several countries. Follow him on Twitter @jscros.