Anna Politkovskaya: Is Journalism Worth A Life?

October 7, 2017

On the anniversary of the assassination of Russian investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya we remember her life and her contributions to the profession of journalism and the necessity of telling uncomfortable truths. 

On this day eleven years ago the award-winning journalist Anna Politkovskaya, a woman who was far more than just a journalist and human rights activist, was shot dead in the elevator outside her apartment. She embodied the core values of a real journalist: she was fearless in telling the truth and saying what others were afraid to hear.  Eleven years after the vicious attack, the people who ordered the murder of Anna Politkovskaya are yet to be found.

It was only eight years after the murder that a Russian court sentenced five Chechen men to prison for the crime.  Only two of them were sentenced for life, the other three received sentences between 12 and 20 years, one of whom recently died in prison. Two years previously the former police officer Dmitry Pavlychenkov was also found guilty and sentenced to 11 years. He initially promised to reveal the name of the person behind the assassination, although he later refused to comply with his promise.  The only thing he mentioned was that it was a contact killing for a bounty of $150,000 put up by an unknown individual.

The question remains whether those implicated in the Politkovskaya assassination acted independently or whether someone powerful wanted to pass it off as someone else’s bidding.  Officially the case is now closed, and the truth remains buried.  Those behind the Politkovskaya murder are still walking free.

There is little doubt among experts and commentators that the killing was politically motivated, particularly due both to the style of the murder and the sensitive subject that Politkovskaya was investigating: Russia’s war in the republic of Chechnya.  As we look back now in 2017 we can see numerous instances of both the Russian and Chechen authorities silencing their opponents sometimes with a bullet in the back, other times with torture, or poison.

Anna Politkovskaya’s name is now a household name not only in Russia and has become a timeless symbol of fearless investigative journalism.  Several journalistic awards have since been named after her.  In her time she worked for Russian independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta and was reporting on war, terrorism and corruption — subjects for which 58 journalists have lost their lives in Russia since 1992.  In her final years her main topic was the war in Chechnya, but her desire for peace and justice went much further than simply reporting; she was helping mothers reconcile with their lost children.  She dedicated her soul to uncovering the full extent of the horrors taking place in Chechnya among both soldiers and civilians.

Politkovskaya was ardent in her criticism of Chechnya’s current political regime, openly claiming that Ramzan Kadyrov is the “disguising younger son of Kadyrov senior”, who is leading “a death squad” and who knows “how to kiss the hand of the big white Tsar [a reference to Vladimir Putin].” In one of her articles in Novaya Gazeta, 2004 she wrote: “the Kremlin has grown a little dragon [referring to Ramzan Kadyrov] that has to be fed from time to time in order for him not to start spitting fire.” Her dislike for Putin’s draconic regime is understandable. She kept repeating that the authorities nowadays are “cruel and heartless.”  A fact that few would deny in 2017.

Today’s society has grown weary of the truth – the very thing for which Politkovskaya lost her life.  Apathy and cynicism have led many in contemporary Russian society to blindly support the regime as it chips away and civil liberties and openly hounds those who speak out against it.  Politkovskaya knew that her reporting on Chechnya had crossed a line with the authorities; she knew that she was in danger.  Nevertheless, she refused to compromise on her pursuit of the truth because of fear.

The Chechen frontline taught her that the truth was difficult to face, as indeed truth usually is.  The truth is often that which we shy away from for fear of being offended or disgusted, either with ourselves or with those around us.  Every word she wrote was either hard piece of criticism, hope for a better future or heart-breaking sentimental stories of people who had lost their friends, families and their own lives on the battlefield.

There were early warning signs that Politkovskaya had made herself an enemy of certain powerful people.  On her way to Beslan, Chechnya after the infamous school siege she was poisoned on board the plane. The flight company denied involvement, saying that everything Politkovskaya drank or ate on board the flight was the same as the other passengers. Additionally, all evidence of the poisoning mysteriously disappeared from the hospital.

After her death, Putin famously commented: “that journalist was a sharp critic of the Russian government, but the degree of her influence on the political life of Russia was insignificant,” a remark that he repeated twice.  If she was insignificant, then why did someone seek to silence her forever? The Politkovskaya assassination took place on the birthday of Russian president Vladimir Putin and just 2 days before the birthday of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.  Whether this is merely a coincidence is now anybody’s guess.

“Is being a journalist worth one’s life?” she wrote, “If the payment for the truth is life, perhaps it is better to stop and find a job with less chances of getting in to “serous trouble”? But how will society react to the work we do for them? Each will come to their own conclusion.”  Regardless of her own advice, Politkovskaya decided to stay brave and courageous until the very end, when she was due to submit serious evidence of torture involving the Chechen leadership.  The authorities were well aware of the implications of this story, and those who undertook the assassination were sure to destroy her collected evidence.

Unfortunately, little has changed since the day of Anna’s death.  Russia under Vladimir Putin is still one of the most unsafe countries for journalists. It is a country where the independent media faces daily intimidation and pressure. It is a country where all opposition is considered a threat by the regime, and measures are taken accordingly.  The murder of Boris Nemtsov in 2014, Novaya Gazeta reporters Stanislav Markelov and Anastasia Baburova, and Natalya Estemirova who was also reporting on Chechnya and many more. Julia Latinina, who last week was awarded the “Kamerton” prize named after Politkovskaya for her work in Novaya Gazeta and Echo Moscow was forced to leave the country after numerous threats throughout recent years, and an attempt to blow up her car with her inside.  Under the Putin regime the truth more often than not comes at the price of blood.

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