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.

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.

Part II: 261 journalists killed in 15 years

According to Vsevolod Bogdanov, the chairman of the Russian Union of Journalists, 261 Russian journalists have been killed since the fall of the Soviet Union. Only 21 cases have been solved. And yet Putin had announced a "dictatorship of the law" when he took office in 2000. Today Russian journalists can relate to the part about dictatorship, but not to the one about the law.

Valery Ivanov, the editor-in-chief of the local paper in Togliatti, a center of the Russian auto industry and a city riddled with mafia clans, was shot in April of 2002. One-and-a-half years later, killers stabbed his successor Alexei Sidorov. Six journalists have died a violent death in Togliatti in eight years.

Yuri Shtshekotshichin, a writer and member of parliament, died in July of 2003. He may have been poisoned. Like Politkovskaya, he wrote for Novaya Gazeta. Paul Khlebnikov, editor-in-chief of the Russian edition of the business journal Forbes, was shot from a moving car in July 2004. Like Politkovskaya, he had researched the question of whether the funds provided by Moscow for reconstruction in Chechnya are being embezzled on a large scale. Three suspects had to be acquitted due to lack of evidence. Who ordered the assassination remains a mystery.

Murder is an everyday risk in other professions, too. The first vice director of the Russian central bank was killed by unknown assailants a month ago, and a branch manager of the foreign exchange bank was killed five days after Politkovskaya. Putin's presidential term ends in 2008, and his next-to-last year in power has seen Russia return to the general chaos of the 1990s, when hardly a week went by without an assassination.

"Coward armed to the teeth"

No one can say for sure who killed Politkovskaya, but Russian military officials who found themselves in court because of her articles would have an obvious motive. They include Igor Sechin, the vice director of the presidential administration and a man thought to wield considerable power behind the scenes in the Kremlin. Right-wing extremists are also known to have blacklisted Politkovskaya. Ramzan Kadyrov, the premier of Chechnya, is another suspect: Politkovskaya once called him a "coward armed to the teeth."

The Prosecutor General of Russia, Yuri Chaika, has declared the arrest of Politkovskaya's assassins one of his personal priorities. Yet Russia's public prosecutors are widely seen as anything but incorruptible. Nina Krushcheva, the granddaughter of former Soviet ruler Nikita Krushchev, even believes Chaika's declaration is "virtually a guarantee that the killers will never be found."

At least not the real ones. During his visit to the German city of Dresden last week, Putin set a tone for the investigations. Speaking at the Petersburg Dialogue, the annual Russian-German forum that was held in Dresden this year, Putin spoke of people who feel they are above Russian law and accused them of wanting to "sacrifice someone" in order to unleash a wave of "anti-Russian sentiment" in the world. It was his way of setting his sights on Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky, the man who once helped him achieve political power and then fled into exile in London.

Putin's broad hint doesn't bode well for the upcoming parliamentary and presidential campaigns. The Kremlin might justify interference with the campaigns of the political opposition by arguing that they are being financed by people like Berezovsky -- in order to ensure that the person who takes political power in Moscow in 2008 is someone Putin approves of.

Meanwhile, Berezovsky has issued a statement on Politkovskaya's murder from London implicitly accusing Putin of being responsible for her death. Berezovsky stated that while he doesn't think Putin had ordered her assassination, he nevertheless believes her death to be a "result of his policies."

According to Putin's logic, the idea behind the spectacular murder wasn't to eliminate a meddlesome journalist, but to damage his own reputation. Does that mean the political system in which so many journalists are murdered shouldn't be an object of scrutiny?

Tension in Dresden

The former leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, has been known for his cool relationship with former KGB director Putin. Gorbachev was in Dresden at the same time as Putin; he acted as co-chairman of the Petersburg Dialogue. He condemned the murder of Politkovskaya and called for an independent "journalistic investigation."

But Gorbachev, master of the vague statement, also qualified his condemnation. Plenty of things go on in other countries, he suggested darkly, adding that not all the research undertaken by Politkovskaya's paper was "well founded." (The former communist ruler, however, has owned shares of Novaya Gazeta since June.) Besides, Gorbachev went on to say, Russia is "firmly on the road to democracy."

Putin was visibly upset in Dresden that the death of a journalist in Russia could interfere with his country's image. He seemed tense and irritable. "It's all very bad for us," one Russian diplomat murmured, adding, however, that it was time for Russia to stop taking lessons from the West in matters of freedom of the press.

And so Putin emphasized that Politkovskaya's "influence on political life" in Russia was "very minor," repeating this assertion no less than three times. "This murder inflicts far more damage on Russia," he said, "on the current authorities in Russia and in Chechnya ... than her publications did."

The statement was intended as a jab at the West. But what Putin said -- on the day of Politkovskaya's burial, no less -- was both impious and cynical.

German representatives at the Petersburg Dialogue work group which focused on media issues were also struck by the attitude of their Russian colleagues. They all seemed more offended than shocked or disturbed. Politkovskaya had just been honored with a minute of silence when a well-known St. Petersburg senator demanded that the same be done for the most recent journalist casualties in Afghanistan. The message was clear: The Politkovskaya case has no symbolic value -- it's just one of many comparable cases in the world.

Russia's future

The German press took a different view, even as Russian visitors to Dresden wanted to return to their pre-established agenda. The critical comments in the press were interpreted by the Russian representatives as a "concerted attack from the other side of the barricade." Russia's ambassador in Berlin, Vladimir Kotenev, spoke of "German campaign journalism." A TV reporter from Russia's "First Channel" -- which is known to be sympathetic to Putin's government -- even drew a historical comparison between contemporary German newspapers and the media propaganda of the Soviet Union during the 1970s. He concluded that the only reason Russians have a good relationship to Germany is that they don't read the German press.

A liberal Moscow-based editor-in-chief later commented that the squabbling in Dresden prompted by Politkovskaya's death amounted to "a conversation among deaf mutes." But more than that, it seems to have been a lesson on the differences between two journalistic cultures -- a lesson that left a fresh feeling of helplessness over how to deal with Russia.

The roughly 3,000 people who turned out for Politkovskaya's burial in Moscow last week seemed helpless, too. Not a single well-known politician from Putin's leadership was there. The only prominent politicians who showed up had been in power under Putin's predecessor, Boris Yeltsin.

Russian writer Viktor Yerofeyev was reminded of his time as a political dissident in the Soviet Union. Not only has Anna Politkovskaya been murdered, he said, but many hopes for Russia's future have been quashed as well.

Mehr lesen über Verwandte Artikel
Die Wiedergabe wurde unterbrochen.