Who will be Russia’s conscience?

Murder of crusading journalist spotlights dangers of the profession

Joel Simon
Published in Newark Star-Ledger
October 22, 2006

Russian journalist Anna Polit kovskaya, who was murdered in her apartment building in Moscow on Oct. 7, was a fearless crusader, and, like many of her ilk, she was not always easy company. She received numerous international awards and accolades, and she gamely gave speeches and col lected plaques. But Politkovskaya did not enjoy the spotlight. She didn’t want to talk about herself; she wanted to talk about what was happening in Chechnya and the brutal war that she would let no one forget. Talking to Politkov skaya, a colleague said, was “like talking to your own conscience.”

Has Russia’s conscience been murdered? There might be no one left — no one of Politkovskaya’s caliber — to tell the Russian people about the brutality being committed in their name.

President Vladimir Putin, for one, is not shedding any tears. He has refused so far to address the Russian people about her murder. He begrudgingly made his only public comments at a news conference in Germany, duly promising an investigation, but also noting that Politkovskaya’s “influence on the country’s political life … was minimal.”

Politkovskaya was the 13th journalist murdered in Russia in a contract-style killing since Putin came to office in 2000. Among those murdered with impunity was Paul Klebnikov, the American editor of Forbes Russia, who was executed outside his Moscow office in July 2004. Two suspects, tried in secret, were acquitted in May amid allegations of procedural violations, including jury and witness intimidation. The master minds are still at large, and prosecutors seem in no rush to find them.

Politkovskaya is also the 43rd journalist killed for her work in Russia in the last 15 years, mak ing Russia the third most deadly country for journalists during this period, behind only conflict-rid den Iraq and Algeria. While most Americans recognize that journalism can be a dangerous profession, they tend to think of international war correspondents in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, according to a Committee to Protect Journalists study released last month, Polit kovskaya is typical of the vast majority of the journalists killed around the world.

Nearly 70 percent of the 580 journalists killed since 1992 were murdered in retaliation for their reporting. Most were victims of gangland-style assassinations, and most were cut down not on assignment but where they could be most easily found — near their offices or homes. Politkovskaya, who survived extended reporting stints in war-ravaged Chechnya, was executed in her own elevator in Moscow while returning from a trip to the grocery store. The gunman, shown in an eerie secu rity video, shot her in the heart and head and then tossed the murder weapon on the ground by Politkovskaya’s lifeless body.

While Iraq is the most dangerous place in the world for the press, even there journalists are more likely to be murdered than to be killed in combat. The same is true in other countries that are among the world’s most dangerous: the Philippines, Colombia, Bangladesh and Russia.

Insurgents like those in Iraq and Colombia are responsible for one in five journalists murdered over the past 15 years, according to CPJ research. But government forces, including civilian and military officials, are responsible for even more slayings — more than one out of every four. Paramilita ries allied with governments are linked to another 8 percent of journalist murders, meaning that government officials or their allies are responsible for more than one-third of journalist murders worldwide.

These kinds of unsolved murders have a ripple effect. As the former Colombian prosecutor Pedro Diaz Romero recently noted, “To take the life of a journalist is to shut down a channel of information for the community. And after one journalist is killed, a threat or act of physical intimidation may be enough to send the message to the community at large.”

Russia is a uniquely dangerous place for journalists because it is both violent and repressive. Putin seems not only indifferent to the plight of murdered journalists, he has brought much of the once thriving post-Soviet media under indirect government control through the use of punitive tax audits and hostile takeovers. All three major television networks are now in the hands of Kremlin loyalists. The media itself is ordinarily a key ally in the fight against impunity; with most of the Russian press allied with Pu tin’s government, achieving justice in the Politkovskaya murder will be an uphill battle.

Putin seems unmoved by international criticism of his coun try’s human rights record. His remarks about Politkovskaya’s murder seemed calculated to play the nationalist card, the no tion that her death matters only to meddling foreigners.

But Russians do care. They turned out by the thousands for Politkovskaya’s funeral and have demanded an investigation. But without sympathetic coverage in the domestic media their demands have no echo in Russian public opinion, and without that echo there is little pressure on Putin’s government.

Anna Politkovskaya was one of Russia’s greatest investigative reporters and one of the world’s leading experts on the conflict in Chechnya. At the time of her death, she was preparing to publish a story alleging that Chech nya’s Kremlin-backed prime minister, Ramzan Kadyrov, had been involved in torture.

Four days after the murder, Kadyrov denied any involvement. Speaking on the state-controlled NTV, he said: “I don’t kill women. Women should be loved. For us Chechens, a woman is sacred.” But Kadyrov certainly has reasons to hold a grudge. Two days prior to her assassination, Polit kovskaya gave an interview to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. She spoke of the human rights abuses committed by Ka dyrov’s militia in Chechnya and called him “a Stalin of our times.”

She said she “dreamed of him someday sitting in the dock, in a trial that meets the strictest legal standards, with all of his crimes listed and investigated.” Polit kovskaya added that she was a witness in a criminal case against Kadyrov, one launched as a result of articles published by her newspaper, Novaya Gazeta. If, as many suspect, there turns out to be a Chechen connection to her murder, the irony is that the only journalist in the world who might have been able to uncover the truth is Politkovk saya herself. Now that she has been brutally gunned down, who will tell the story of her murder? Who will serve as Russia’s conscience?

Joel Simon is the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

© 2006 The Star Ledger
© 2006 NJ.com. All Rights Reserved.