One year ago, the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was murdered. The fearless, crusading journalist for Russia’s leading opposition newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, was just 48 years old when she was found in her Moscow apartment building, shot in the head.
Her unflinching investigative reporting on the brutality and corruption of the Chechen war, as well as other abuses of official power, had made her the target of numerous death threats. On one of her many reporting trips to Chechnya, she was detained and beaten by Russian troops who threw her into a pit, threatened to rape her and performed a mock execution. But, as one of her colleagues wrote soon after her murder, “Anna believed that fate had given her a mission: to tell people the truth about what was actually going on in Chechnya.” When she was killed, Politkovskaya was working on an article claiming Chechen civilians were being tortured by security forces loyal to the region’s pro-Moscow Consul and now President Ramzan Kadyrov.
In an editorial published immediately after Politkovskaya’s assassination, the paper’s staff pledged, “While there is a Novaya Gazeta, her killers won’t sleep soundly.” Four days after her death, the newspaper published her unfinished article, along with photos of the torture victims.
This September, Russia’s Prosecutor General announced that ten people had been arrested in Politkovskaya’s killing, including a police major, three former police officers and lieutenant colonel in the FSB, the former KGB Yet, for all practical purposes, one year later, her brazen murder remains unsolved. Despite what Russian officials have claimed as breakthroughs, Roman Shleinov, an investigative editor at Novaya Gazeta, says the truth is still buried. The paper’s courageous editor-in-chief, Dmitrii Muratov, who was initially satisfied with the progress of the official investigation–even cooperating with it– now believes that media leaks, the demotion of the lead investigator, the release of a key suspect, and claims of gaping holes in the evidence have undermined hopes of justice being served. And the paper’s editors dispute the official version of foreign involvement in Politkovskaya’s murder –that it was done in order to discredit the Kremlin and destabilize the Russian state. Novaya Gazeta continues to conduct an independent investigation of its martyred reporter’s murder.
However murky the official Russian investigation, what remains clear is that Anna Politkovskaya endures as an example of the importance of truth and courage in journalism. It is that importance –and her fearless pursuit of justice for the powerless and vulnerable –which will be remembered in memorials,from Moscow to London and New York, this weekend.
In London, on the evening of October 5th, a new international human rights group supporting women human rights defenders and women and girl victims of war and conflict — RAW in WAR (Reach all Women in WAR)–will mark its founding by honoring Anna. Mariana Katzarova, a journalist, human rights advocate and RAW’s founder, told me that Anna was very supportive of RAW’s work and had just agreed to join the group’s advisory board a few days before she was killed. To honor her, and other women human rights defenders, Mariana says, RAW decided to establish a RAW in WAR annual award in the name of Anna Politkovskaya. This year the award will go to Natalya Estemirova, a woman activist from Anna’s war–the war in Chechnya. Natalya continues to work for the human rights group Memorial in the Chechen capital of Grozny. (We are publishing her disturbing article about how she and Anna fought to bring a torturer to justice.)
Since 1992, 47 Russian journalists have been murdered, 33 during Boris Yeltsin’s presidency, and the vast majority of cases remain unsolved. Some of the most fearless–and vulnerable–of these reporters were women, like Yulia Yudina, chief editor of a provincial paper far from Moscow, who was investigating local corruption. Today, many of those speaking up for media freedom and independence are women, often in the provinces of Russia. Indeed in these bleak times for independent media in Russia, And while a great many mainstream Moscow journalists are compliant, there are hopeful signs of solidarity among the country’s journalists. Last May, for example, TV2, located in the Siberian city of Tomsk, posted an open letter to President Putin in defense of media freedom. Within a few days, more than 2000 journalists from almost all Russian regions had signed the petition.
While Anna Politkovskaya’s paper, Novaya Gazeta, remains the most critical oppositionist newspaper with national influence in Putin’s Russia, it has paid a heavy price for its crusading investigations into high-level corruption, human rights violations and abuses of power. Three of its reporters–Igor Domnikov and Yuri Shchekochikhin– have been killed– Ana being the most recent victim. Yet, the paper’s tenacious editor, Dmitrii Muratov continues to fight for press freedom –and for justice on behalf of his slain colleagues. This November, he will receive the Committee to Protect Journalist’s 2007 International Press Freedom Award at a ceremony in New York city.
Lost amid so much of the remembrance of Anna’s killing, one year later, is a sad irony: She was assassinated on the 20th anniversary of the unfolding of Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost policy, in 1986, which led to an increasingly free press. Today, the former Soviet President–who has long been a financial supporter of Novaya Gazeta (he donated part of his 1990 Nobel Peace Prize Award to pay for start-up computers and salaries), is a part owner of the newspaper. It was his words, upon learning of Politkovskaya’s murder, that stay with me on this anniversary: ” Her murder was a savage crime against the country, against all of us…a blow to the entire democratic, independent press.” Let all who care about a free press and a democratic society work to ensure that Anna Politkovskaya’s newspaper thrive as an oppositionist, independent force– and that her killers be brought to justice.