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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Counting the Dead a Dicey Job

Ask how many journalists have been murdered because of their reporting since Vladimir Putin assumed power, and you might be surprised.

The Committee to Protect Journalists puts the number at 13. Reporters Without Borders says it is 21. The Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, however, says it has only been able to confirm five.

This discrepancy casts a long shadow over the reliability of the statistics collected by media watchdogs, said Elsa Vidal, head of the Europe desk at the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders.

"We can be accused of not knowing what we are talking about," she said.

Every time a journalist is attacked, Western media seem to roll out a figure for how many have died under Putin's watch to demonstrate the sorry state of media freedom.

True, Putin has faced international pressure over media freedom during his seven years in office. The U.S. State Department and the European Union have expressed concern that media freedom has eroded and have taken the Kremlin to task over the high-profile -- and unsolved murders of Forbes Russia editor Paul Klebnikov in 2004 and Novaya Gazeta reporter Anna Politkovskaya in October.

Perhaps the most cited list of journalists killed since 2000 is compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York.

The list, called "Russia: 13 Murders, No Justice," includes Klebnikov, Politkovskaya, Novaya Gazeta reporter Igor Domnikov, Dagestani journalist Magomedzagid Varisov, and the director of Tolyatti's independent television channel, Sergei Ivanov.

The list only contains the names of journalists targeted in contract-style killings and whose killers remain unpunished, said Nina Ognianova, the organization's director for Europe and Central Asia. "This is not an exhaustive list," she said.

However, six men were jailed in 2003 after being convicted of killing several people in contract hits, including the Tolyatti television director in 2000. Sixteen people are now being tried in a Kazan court on charges of murdering Domnikov in 2000. Also, federal forces killed last year the leaders of an extremist Islam group who had claimed responsibility for Varisov's death in 2005.

Varisov, in fact, was not a journalist. He headed up a government-sponsored think tank that published political commentary in a Dagestani newspaper.

Ognianova said the developments did not affect the list because the masterminds of the killings had not been brought to justice.

She also said courts had tried or were trying defendants in a "broader context," without specifying that the journalists were slain because of their work.

She said the 13 names on the list were picked because "there is a certain degree of certainty" that the death was work-related.

The lack of information about why a journalist had been killed is the main barrier to reaching a consensus on the total number of deaths, said Oleg Panfilov, head of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, which is based in Moscow.

"Several years ago, an NTV television cameraman died in Chechnya after his car slid off a road into a canyon. How could this death be linked to the Putin regime?" Panfilov said.

A total of 156 journalists have died since 2000, but only five were definitely killed because of their reporting, according to the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations.

Investigations into 12 of the deaths are ongoing, and five others are cases of journalists who are missing and presumed dead.

The remaining 134 journalists died in accidents not related to their profession.

Interestingly, the group says 11 journalists were killed for their work under former President Boris Yeltsin in the seven years before Putin became president. In all, the group says 86 died from 1993 to 2000.

Vidal, the representative of Reporters Without Borders, said her group arrived at the figure of 21 deaths, since 2000, by excluding accidents and counting deaths "that can be sufficiently enough related to journalists' professional activities."

She said several of the cases might demand more thorough research and could be revisited.

Among them, perhaps, is NTV reporter Ilya Zimin, who was found dead in his Moscow apartment in February 2006. A Moldovan citizen confessed in June to killing him in a drunken brawl and now faces trial in the capital of Chisinau.

Vidal said, however, that unsolved and untried cases made it difficult to determine which deaths were work-related, so a certain degree of guesswork was involved in compiling lists.

Reporters Without Borders includes Putin in a list on its web site called "Predators of Press Freedoms" alongside officials, religious leaders and heads of militias who, the organization says, "have the power to censor, imprison, kidnap, torture and, in the worst cases, murder journalists."

Putin is included alongside Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, North Korea's Kim Jong Il and Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko.

What politicizes the issue is not the actual number of slain journalists, but the failure of authorities to thoroughly investigate the deaths, said Dmitry Badovsky, a political analyst with the Institute of Social Systems at Moscow State University.

"Journalists do not necessarily die because the regime in Russia is bad and oppressive," he said.

"Also," said Alexei Simonov, head of Glasnost Defense Foundation, "do not forget that investigations into these murders last for years and often depend upon politics."