Russian Journalist Murdered Is Russia's Press Freedom Dead?

Journalism is a dangerous profession in Russia: No less than 261 journalists have been killed there since the fall of the Soviet Union. The killers are hardly ever found. The recent murder of Russian investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya may now become a major political issue.

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Anna Politkovskaya's murder has created an uproar in Europe. It's just the latest in a string of such killings.
AP

Anna Politkovskaya's murder has created an uproar in Europe. It's just the latest in a string of such killings.

The gathering of Russians looks small in the hectic commotion of a busy street crossing in the heart of Moscow. Fresh flowers have been placed by the building in front of which journalist Anna Politkovskaya was gunned down on Oct. 7, but the vigil doesn't look particularly impressive. An old woman is there; so is an elderly professor with thick horn-rimmed glasses. Twenty people have shown up, which isn't a great showing in a city with a population of almost 11 million.

Politkovskaya had accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of "state terrorism" and called him a "KGB snoop," referring to his background as an agent for the Soviet intelligence service. She accused the intelligence services now under his command of committing abduction, torture and murder in Chechnya. Such accusations aren't left unpunished in contemporary Russia. The politically powerful in the Kremlin accused Politkovskaya of besmirching her country's reputation.

She liked to wear old-fashioned wool sweaters. She was neither left- nor right-wing, but a kind of moral watchdog who kept an eye on Russian politicians. In some ways, she was to Russia what investigative journalist Seymour Hersh is to the United States: someone incorruptible and driven. Some of her colleagues thought she was fanatical and even biased. Politkovskaya tried to impose moral norms on post-Soviet Russia.

The 10-story tenement that Politkovskaya lived in, on Lesnaya Street 8, was built during the Stalinist era. It looks shabby. Its stone walls have been covered in a layer of yellow paint. They're plastered with posters, pieces of paper with poems written on them and a picture of Russian President Vladimir Putin. He's wearing sunglasses; his eyes are hidden.

"The state has taken control of the media"

On a picture of Politkovskaya displayed nearby, someone has written "Death of Freedom of the Press." The picture is framed in black. But the sign doesn't quite capture the truth, because Politkovskaya's journalistic activities had largely been curbed when she was still alive. She was banished from state-controlled public television and published only in the small newspaper Novaya Gazeta, which appears twice a week and has a readership of only about 100,000 people.

She was the daughter of a diplomat, but she wasn't diplomatic. Her investigative journalism lacked a proper audience and receptive context in Putin's Russia. And as a Russian journalist killed lately in unusual circumstances, she wasn't alone. Just over a week after her murder, for example, the business chief of Russia's news agency, Itar-Tass, died of knife wounds in his own apartment in Moscow. Anatoly Voronin, 55, had worked for Itar-Tass for 23 years.

"The state has taken control of the media," Vladimir Ryzhkov, one of the last opposition politicians in the Russian Duma, explains. "And so no information gets through to the majority of Russians."

This conclusion, drawn after 15 years of putative freedom of the press in Russia, could hardly be more bitter.

The slow stranglehold on Russian media

During the first years after the fall of the Soviet Union, under President Boris Yeltsin, Russian journalism was exciting, tough and impudent. Then the oligarchs who had secured entire industrial sectors for themselves during the process of privatization bought up parts of the media landscape, from TV channels to the most important newspapers. They managed to supplement their new economic power with political power.

Putin came to office with the declared goal of restoring the Kremlin's political authority. Vladimir Gusinsky, the country's most important media entrepreneur, was arrested about five months later. His media holding company -- including the TV channel NTW -- was taken over by Gazprom, the state-controlled natural gas monopoly.

The Kremlin proceeded to let companies closely associated with the government purchase one publishing house after the other. In September, one such company acquired the Kommersant publishing group, distinguished by its high print runs and -- until then -- its critical stance towards the government.

The new owner Alisher Usmanov, formerly a leading functionary of the Communist Party's youth federation, is in charge of a Gazprom subsidiary. A billionaire and longtime acquaintance of Putin's spokesman Alexei Gromov, he promised "not to meddle with editorial policy." But then he immediately installed a Putin supporter as editor-in-chief and declared himself "entirely loyal to the state."

Valery Yakov, the editor-in-chief of Novye Izvestia, reports that smaller non-conformist or critical papers are harassed by the authorities through surprising -- and sometimes absurd -- fire protection or health controls.

The result is that tough investigative journalism has become a rarity in Russia. "Anyone who takes the place of Politkovskaya will take on a suicide mission," says Yelena Tregubova, who has written as book describing her experiences as a Kremlin correspondent. A bomb exploded outside her front door shortly after the book was published.

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