Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Freedom of the press under attack - The murder of Anna Politkovskaya

I've recently posted some items dealing with attacks on freedom of expression in Bangladesh (Freedom of the press under attack - Bangladeshi journalist Salah Choudhury faces the death penalty) and elsewhere (Freedom of expression under attack - Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders, Jeff Jarvis, & Piet Dorsman). Campaigns of repression and intimidation by governments, terrorists, and/or criminals--including high-profile murders of journalists and political activists--in places ranging from Zimbabwe to Colombia to the Middle East are well known. This is a dismayingly widespread problem, not a localized one.

Another part of the world where freedom of expression is under assault is in much of the former Soviet Union. The pattern is uneven. My impression is that the situation for freedom of the press and freedom of expression more generally is not bad in the Baltic countries and has improved in Ukraine since the 2005 Orange Revolution. But varying degrees of authoritarian repression have long been pervasive in countries like Belarus and most of the Central Asian republics. And in Russia, where a vigorous culture of independent journalism emerged with the withering-away of the Soviet regime, it is now under increasingly harsh and effective pressure. In general, this campaign to smother and suppress independent journalism seems to rely mostly on co-optation, marginalization, and economic strangulation. But a certain amount of violence is involved, too.

One of the most startling examples of this creeping repression was the murder of the prominent investigative journalist Anna Polikovskaya on October 7, 2006. Politskaya seems to have been one of those classically 'difficult' and unbendingly principled types that the Russian intelligentsia has regularly produced over the past two centuries. Her assassination generated international attention, alarm, and condemnation precisely because it has to be seen, not simply as an isolated incident, but as an especially striking symptom of a larger danger. A great deal has now been written about it (including this statement from US PEN), but among the pieces I have encountered, I think her obituary from the Economist and the BBC story that follows it stand out..

--Jeff Weintraub

The Economist
October 12, 2006
Anna Politkovskaya
Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist, was shot dead on October 7th, aged 48

She was brave beyond belief, reporting a gruesome war and a creeping dictatorship with a sharp pen and steel nerves. It may be a chilling coincidence that Anna Politkovskaya was murdered on Vladimir Putin's birthday, but her friends and supporters are in little doubt that her dogged, gloomy reporting of the sinister turn Russia has taken under what she called his “bloody” leadership was what led to her body being dumped in the lift of her Moscow apartment block.

Miss Politkovskaya's journalism was distinctive. Not for her the waffly, fawning and self-satisfied essays of the Moscow commentariat, nor the pervasive well-paid advertorials. Austere and a touch obsessive, she reported from the wrecked villages and shattered towns of Chechnya, talking to those on all sides and none, with endless patience and gritty determination.

She neither sentimentalised the Chechen rebels nor demonised the Russian conscripts—ill-armed, ill-fed and ill-led—who have crushed the Chechens' half-baked independence. She talked to soldiers' mothers trying to find their sons' corpses in military morgues where mangled bodies lay unnamed and unclaimed—the result of the Russian army's unique mixture of callousness and incompetence. And she talked to Chechens whose friends and relatives had disappeared into the notorious “filtration camps” to suffer torture, mutilation, rape and death.

Few journalists, from any country, did that. The second Chechen war, which started in 1999 and still fizzles on now, made that mountainous sliver of territory in the northern Caucasus the most dangerous place on the planet for a journalist. Most Moscow-based reporters went seldom, if at all, and then only in daylight and well-guarded. Ms Politkovskaya was unfazed, making around 50 trips there, often for days at a time.

Ordinary Chechens, and many Russians, adored her. Piles of post and incessant phone calls came, some offering information, more often wanting her help. Could she intercede with a kidnapper? Trace a loved one? She always tried, she said, to do what she could.

She loathed the warlords who had misruled Chechnya during its brief spells of semi-independence; the Islamic extremists who exploited the conflict; the Russian goons and generals, and their local collaborators. She despised the Chechen leaders installed by Russia: they looted reconstruction money, she said, using torture and kidnapping as a weapon. She was due to file a story on this the day she died.

The worst effect of the Chechen wars, she reckoned, was on Russia itself. Her reporting from all over her native country made her see it in what many regarded as an unfairly bleak light. Mr Putin's regime was utterly brutal and corrupt, she would say in her soft, matter-of-fact voice. He represented the worst demons of the Soviet past, revived in modern form. Hundreds had died to bring him to power, and that was just a foretaste of the fascism and war that was to come. Now her pessimism seems less extreme.

A duty to tell

Mr Putin, condemning her murder four days late, said she had “minimal influence”. Yet Miss Politkovskaya was often threatened with death. Once Russian special forces held her captive and threatened to leave her dead body in a ditch. She talked them out of it. In 2001, she fled briefly to Austria after a particularly vivid death threat scared not her, but her editors at Novaya Gazeta, one of Russia's few remaining independent papers. In 2004, on her way to the siege of a school in the North Ossetian town of Beslan, where she hoped to mediate between the Chechen hostage-takers and the Russian army, she was poisoned and nearly died.

This time there was no mistake. She was shot in the body and the head. A pistol was left by her side—the blatant hallmark of a contract killing. She was well aware that the authorities might have her murdered, but in conversation she would brush this aside, saying that her sources were in much more danger than she was. Journalists had a duty to report on the subject that mattered, she said, just as singers had to sing and doctors had to heal.

Much of her life mirrored the changes in her country. She was born in New York, the child of Soviet diplomats. That gilded upbringing gave her access to a world of ideas and knowledge denied to most Soviet citizens. Her university dissertation was on Marina Tsvetaeva, a poet then in deep official disfavour. She had good jobs too, first on Izvestia, the government paper, then on Aeroflot's in-flight magazine.

Having discovered democracy and the free press as Soviet power collapsed, her faith was uncompromising and sometimes uncomfortable. Nor was she always easy company. A fondness for both sweeping statements and intricate details sometimes made conversation heavy-going. She was both disorganised and single-minded; that could be unnerving, too. But she enjoyed life. She often said that with a KGB officer as president, the least you could do was to smile sometimes, to show the difference between him and you.

It would be nice to think that Russians will find her example inspiring. Sadly, they may conclude that brave work on hot topics is a bad idea.

BBC News
Saturday, 7 October 2006
Chechen war reporter found dead
Anna Politkovskaya, a prominent Russian journalist known as a fierce critic of the Kremlin's actions in Chechnya, has been found dead in Moscow.

The 48-year-old mother of two was found shot dead in a lift at her apartment block in the capital.

A pistol and four bullets were found near her body and a murder investigation has been launched.

Ms Politkovskaya's murder has all the hallmarks of a contract killing, says the BBC's Emma Simpson in Moscow.

The award-winning journalist became ill with food poisoning on her way to report on the Beslan school siege in 2004, which some believed to be an attempt on her life.

'Brave defender'

Ms Politkovskaya, who worked for the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, was known for exposing rights abuses by Russian troops in Chechnya.

She also acted as a negotiator with the Chechen rebels who held a siege in a Moscow theatre in 2002.

The head of Russia's journalism union described her as the conscience of the country's journalism.

She was one of the few remaining high-profile, independent journalists in Russia - and her death will cause widespread anger and shock, says our Moscow correspondent.

"Russia has lost a brave and dedicated human rights defender," said Nicola Duckworth from the rights group Amnesty International.

Ms Politkovskaya "spoke out fearlessly against violence and injustice, and campaigned tirelessly to see justice done".

Amnesty International has called for a thorough investigation into the killing but Russian political analyst Anna Zelkina is doubtful there will be results.

"There is this series of politically motivated murders like hers," she told the BBC.

"I'm afraid that there will be less and less people who would be taking the risk to report... [she's] a very difficult person to replace."

'Honest journalism'

Ms Politkovskaya was killed at around 1630 local time (1330 GMT), Dmitry Muratov, editor in chief of the Novaya Gazeta said.
Sept 2006 - first deputy chairman of Russia's central bank Andrei Kozlov shot dead in Moscow
Oct 2005 - former bank head Alexander Slesarev gunned down near Moscow
July 2004 - US editor of Forbes' Russian edition Paul Klebnikov shot dead in Moscow
Oct 2002 - Magadan governor Valentin Tsvetkov killed in Moscow
Nov 1998 - liberal MP Galina Starovoitova killed in St Petersburg
March 1995 - leading journalist Vladislav Listyev shot dead in Moscow
Vitaly Yaroshevsky, deputy editor of the newspaper, believes she was killed because of her work.

"The first thing that comes to mind is that Anna was killed for her professional activities. We don't see any other motive for this terrible crime," he told the Reuters news agency.

Moscow deputy prosecutor Vyacheslav Rosinsky has said investigators are considering the link between the journalist's death and her work.

"We think that one of the leads of Politkovskaya's intentional homicide is her public duty," he told Russian agency Itar-Tass.

Oleg Panfilov, director of the Moscow-based Centre for Journalism in Extreme Situations, said Ms Politkovskaya had frequently received threats.

"There are journalists who have this fate hanging over them. I always thought something would happen to Anya, first of all because of Chechnya," he told the Associated Press news agency.

"Whenever the question arose whether there is honest journalism in Russia, almost every time the first name that came to mind was Politkovskaya," he added.

In 2001, she fled to Vienna, Austria, after receiving e-mail threats claiming a Russian police officer she had accused of committing atrocities against civilians wanted to take his revenge.

In an interview two years ago with the BBC, Ms Politkovskaya said she believed it was her duty to continue reporting, despite receiving such death threats.

"I am absolutely sure that risk is [a] usual part of my job; job of [a] Russian journalist, and I cannot stop because it's my duty," she said.

"I think the duty of doctors is to give health to their patients, the duty of the singer to sing. The duty of [the] journalist [is] to write what this journalist sees in the reality. It's only one duty."