Murder in Moscow

McClatchy-Tribune News Service
Chicago Tribune
October 13, 2006

If freedom of the press is the backbone of a democracy, then Russia is growing crippled.

The country is the third most dangerous place in the world –behind Iraq and Algeria — to practice journalism, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. A stark fact: 43 journalists have been killed in Russia since 1992. Many have been executed, contract-style. Many of the murders have gone unsolved.

Last week, about 1,000 mourners stood in a cold rain to attend funeral services for the country’s latest victim, slain Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya. It was a tremendous testament to her work. An incisive critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Politkovskaya, 48, received international acclaim for coverage of human rights abuses in Chechnya.

Politkovskaya was found dead Oct. 7 inside an elevator at her downtown Moscow apartment building. The Committee to Protect Journalists said she’s the 13th journalist killed since Putin took office in 2000.

“We have a clear indication that the Russian government has either been indifferent or impotent in solving these crimes,” said Nina Ognianova, program coordinator for Europe and Central Asia with the committee. “In none of the 13 cases do we have the masterminds who have been identified or brought to justice. This sends a chilling message to the Russian press that whoever wants to murder journalists in Russia can do it with complete impunity.”

Putin has not responded admirably to Politkovskaya’s murder. He called the assassination “a crime of loathsome brutality” and vowed to bring the killers to justice _ but he also sought to downplay Politkovskaya’s influence on the country’s political life. He suggested that her articles had tarnished Russia and that her murder might have been carried out by people seeking to darken the country’s reputation.

Russia has three state-controlled national television stations. Only a few news media outlets cover Chechnya and write stories that are independent and sometimes critical of the Kremlin. Politkovskaya worked for one such publication, Novaya Gazeta, a weekly newspaper with a circulation of about 200,000.

According to the committee, Politkovskaya was threatened, jailed, forced into exile and poisoned during her career. She wrote about subjects that don’t appear in the mainstream media there _ torture, prison abductions, forced confessions and interrogations. Her last story was about alleged torture by Chechnyan forces under the command of the Kremlin-appointed prime minister. The unfinished story was published Thursday in Novaya Gazeta.

In the years since the collapse of the Soviet Union and Mikhail Gorbachev’s reform policies of “perestroika” and “glasnost,” a free and unfettered press has struggled to survive. Politkovskaya’s murder is the latest example that Russian democracy is in deep trouble. A stark fact: 43 journalists have been killed in Russia since 1992.

© 2006 Chicago Tribune