Deafening Press Silence Surrounds Sex Killings

Within five days in the heart of Moscow, three young women are murdered and grotesquely mutilated, leading police to suggest that a serial killer may be at large. But with the exception of a banner headline in the daily Kuranty, the city's newspapers have barely mentioned the crimes.

Why the silence in the press?

"Maybe these things seem more interesting in places where you're not reporting every day on major accidents, bank robberies, bombings and a three-year anniversary of a coup," said Vadim Prokopenko, head of the information department at Komsomolskaya Pravda.

But in the apartment block where the first murder occurred residents were fearful and eager for more information.

"We feel completely defenseless," said Tamara, a woman who lives in the same communal apartment where the first victim, a 19-year-old college student named Yulia Potapova, had lived with her parents. Potapova's mutilated body was found Aug. 8 in a basement room of her apartment building at 22 Suvorovsky Bulvar, Moscow police reported.

"There should be some information about how the investigation is going so that people will feel that law enforcement agencies are doing something," said Tamara, who declined to give her last name. "They inform us about nothing."

A resident of 52 Tretyaya Tverskaya Yamskaya Ulitsa, where the third victim was found Aug. 12 on a staircase landing, said Monday that she had not even heard about the incident.

Moscow police have not yet identified the second two victims, the first of whom was discovered Aug. 9 in an abandoned building on Tverskaya Ulitsa.

Nor have police determined whether all three victims were killed by the same person, although they have noted certain similarities in each case, according to spokesman Igor Tsyrulnikov.

"There are no secrets, but why should we excite the public?" he said, asked why there had not been more information released about the investigation. "Imagine if we were to announce that there were many of these murders in the city. There would be panic."

Newspaper editors cited a variety of reasons for giving little space to a trio of murders that would have created a press stampede in London or New York. Among them were the lack of concrete information from the police, a mandate to cover national rather than local issues and, in one case, a key crime reporter on vacation.

Leonid Zakharov, managing editor of Komsomolskaya Pravda, said it was the lack of concrete information as well as reporters' inability to find a reliable source linking the three murders that prevented the paper from writing a substantial article about them.

"Of course, in principle, it is unusual that we haven't written more on this as in the past we have made stories of much sketchier material," he said.

At Moskovsky Komsomolets, which often has crime stories splashed on its front page, the explanation for the lack of coverage was more mundane."Our specialist who usually writes about murder and maniacs is on vacation until September," said a reporter contacted by telephone. The newspaper noted the first murder in its weekly crime chronicle, but has not written about the second two incidents.

Izvestia also gave only brief notice to the murders.

"Our paper is not read only in Moscow but in the whole CIS," said Andrei Illesh, head of the paper's information department. "If we were to write about every murder we would be nothing but a chronicle of crime."

Such a national focus does a disservice to local readers, said Yassen Zassursky, dean of the journalism department at Moscow State University.

"They are targeting the whole country and therefore they miss what is right under their nose," said Zassursky, who believes that Russian newspapers are overly interested in politics.

"There was a tradition here not to write about crime because it was considered that writing about crime encourages crime," he said. "But it is the duty of journalists to write about it. People should know how well the police are defending their interests."

Peter Khlebnikov, director of the Russian-American Press and Information Center, said that when the Russian press writes about crime it tends to be more sensationalist than informative.

"It often seems that the Russian press' self-appointed role of being the guide or teacher for the public has fallen by the wayside in several surprising areas, crime among them," he said. "In the West the press would act as a conduit of information for the police department. This is where the Russian press could play the role it likes to play as an educator. Instead you have nothing."