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Thursday, October 12, 2006

Murder In Moscow

By Stephen Brown

In Russia, the best journalists don’t necessarily get recognized with medals, but rather with coffins.

And the murder of internationally renowned Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya last Saturday in her Moscow apartment building is a prime example of this sad development in post-Soviet, “democratic” Russia, clearly showing to what Third World lawless depths that Eastern European country has sunk. The forty-eight year-old investigative journalist for the newspaper Novaya Gazeta was found shot in the head in her apartment elevator in a contract-style murder for apparently challenging authority and exposing human rights abuses in Chechnya. This tragic event has shocked Russia and put into question the fledging foundations of a free press in that country, recalling the darkest days of the Cold War era when an all-powerful secret police simply caused people to disappear.

Even though Russia’s prosecutor general has personally taken over the investigation, don’t expect any quick resolution of this heinous crime. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Russia is the third deadliest country in the world for journalists after Iraq and Algeria, a proud distinction for the Putin administration. According to the Committee, 42 journalists have been murdered in Russia since 1992 with 12 of that number meeting their demise during Putin’s time in office. Most of these murders have never been solved. And to keep the state of Russian lawlessness in perspective, the Ministry of the Interior estimates there has been between 500 to 800 contract murders in Russia this year alone, while the unofficial number is probably much higher.

Accolades continue to pour in from colleagues, friends and sympathizers for Politkovskaya, one of Russia’s best investigative journalists, who won international awards from such organizations as Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Thousands attended her funeral and other gatherings in Moscow, while a thousand people held a demonstration in front of the Russian embassy in Helsinki.

“She was a symbolic figure, the incarnation of all that makes people both love journalists and hate them,” wrote fellow Russian journalist Yevgeny Kiselyov. “For me, Politkovskaya’s bravery, single-mindedness and readiness to get the story no matter what the risks put her up there with Veronica Guerin of The Irish Times, who was killed in 1996 as revenge for her investigative articles (on the drug trade).”

Like many in Russia, Kiselyov believes Politkovskaya’s murder “was clearly ordered and was clearly political.”

Described as fearless and a throwback to another era, the late Russian journalist’s reporting concerned itself mostly with corruption and human rights abuses committed both in Russia and in Chechnya. The mother of two children in their twenties was set to publish an explosive story concerning torture practices by private security units loyal to Chechnya’s Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov. Novya Gazeta’s editor Dmitry Muratov said the lengthy story was to appear the day of her murder and that two photographs of suspected torturers have also disappeared. According to Kiselyov, Politkovskaya spent most of her time investigating human rights abuses, corruption and other crimes in the Chechen war. One journalist relates she was a staunch defender of the rights of the ordinary Chechen people, who will probably miss her uncompromising style of journalism the most.

Many in Russia are accusing the Kremlin of Politkovskaya’s murder, saying her unwavering reporting on corruption and Chechnya had angered and terrified some of those in power. Politkovskaya criticized Putin fiercely, even writing a book titled Putin’s Russia: Life in a Failing Democracy that was published in 2004. There are also those who believe the pro-Moscow Kadyrov, who was repeatedly criticized in Politkovskaya’s articles, may also have had a hand in her death, while Russian ultra-nationalists are also not excluded from suspicion. Others believe anti-Putin forces may have killed her in order to make the Russian president look bad, a theory former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, one of Novaya Gazeta’s owners, subscribes to.

However, even if none of the above is directly responsible for Politkovskaya’s murder, the climate of hatred for journalists and a free press under the Putin regime definitely shares some of the blame. The state has taken over most large media outlets in Russia, including the country’s two largest, Channel One and NTV television, which then become pro-government in outlook. A State Duma deputy said these takeovers have left most Russians living in “a complete information blockade.” And since the state shows no respect for freedom of the press and for journalists’ freedom to do their jobs, Russian reporters will never enjoy the professional immunity and physical safety their colleagues do in other countries. As a result of their dangerous status, they often engage in self-censorship, further degrading their profession.

Putin himself gave an indication of this disrespect for Russian journalism when the Kremlin remained silent for forty-eight hours after Politkovskaya’s death. And when the Russian president did break that silence, he did not do so in a statement to the Russian people, but rather in a telephone call to President Bush. Bush, to his credit, asked for a “vigorous and thorough investigation” of the murder.

Politkovskaya, who was born in the United States to diplomat parents, was obviously a brave woman who had received many death threats over her career. Disgracefully, she is also the third Novaya Gazeta journalist to be killed in the last six years. But if Politkovskaya’s death galvanizes an outraged Russian people to stand up and say to their venal government they have had enough, that such murders do more damage to their society and future than journalism critical of authorities, more journalists may not have to have their careers end in coffins and this paradigm of Russian journalistic truth and integrity will not have died in vain.

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