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Monday, October 09, 2006

Kiselyov on Politkovskaya

In a Moscow Times column, Evgeny Kiselyov, formerly one of the leading voices on NTV television before it was crushed by the Kremlin, delivers an ode to his colleague Anna Politkovskaya:

Anna Politkovskaya, who was gunned down Saturday outside her home in central Moscow in what appears to have been a contract hit, was not just a famous journalist. She was a symbolic figure, the incarnation of all that makes people both love journalists and hate them.

For me, Politkovskaya's bravery, single-mindedness and readiness to get the story no matter what the risks involved, put her up there with Veronica Guerin of The Irish Times, who was killed by Dublin drug dealers in 1996 as revenge for her investigative articles.

Many will remember Joel Schumacher's film about her story, with Guerin played by Cate Blanchett. The film was slammed by many critics for portraying the deceased journalist as highly ambitious and interested only in glory and celebrity. In fact, Guerin was completely different -- modest and concerned only with telling her readers the truth. I once met Veronica and can vouch for this personally.

Politkovskaya was from the same mold. If anything, she was even less interested in money. She was more ascetic, more of a human rights activist. She had one main theme: human rights violations in Chechnya. She not only wrote about this, but tried to help people whose rights had been violated, to get them out of torture chambers and back on their feet. This was where the royalties from her articles and books went.

Contrary to the common perception that renowned journalists earn a lot of money, Politkovskaya lived very modestly, like the overwhelming majority of her colleagues. She drove an old beat-up Lada and rented an apartment in an old building.

People like Politkovskaya are crusaders. She was a study in fanaticism and obsession. Sometimes it even seemed as though she was cloaked in an aura of saintliness, like many people who believe they have a mission in life that must be pursued every hour of every day and in every way possible. Politkovskaya believed that fate had given her a mission: to tell people the truth about what was actually going on in Chechnya.

This was why she spent almost every day investigating human rights violations and other crimes committed by federal forces and their Chechen allies during a war that, according to opinion polls, most Russians had not supported for years. It is a war that swept the man who started its latest phase into the Kremlin. President Vladimir Putin regards criticism of the war as a personal affront.

The criticism that Politkovskaya expressed in her articles drove many to distraction, including the authorities in Moscow and their appointees in Chechnya, as well as many ordinary people who did not enjoy hearing unpleasant news. This frustration grew into hatred.

Politkovskaya was a silent rebuke to many of her fellow journalists, who accepted the rules of the game as laid down by the authorities, rules that have cowed journalists into looking for themselves, their careers and peace of mind above all else while subjecting themselves to relentless self-censorship.

Politkovskaya was not an easy person to get along with. It was impossible to convince her not to publish certain information or to get into her good graces by offering her an exclusive.

Those in power, both political and military, tried to avoid her. A colleague of mine once told me how, in the Caucasus, a general known for his fearlessness -- someone who had looked death in the face -- ran into Politkovskaya on a mountain road, then turned his jeep around and sped off home so that the chance encounter would not turn into an interview.

Politkovskaya was not only a difficult person for those whom she exposed or asked pointed questions, but occasionally for those who agreed with her.

At this point I should make a confession. A few years ago, when I was hosting the political talk show "Glas Naroda," or "Vox Populi," on NTV -- when the channel was not yet under de facto state control -- even when we had already discussed events in and around Chechnya, I still felt uneasy whenever Politkovskaya was in the studio audience.

I knew that if she had the microphone she could tear to pieces any opponent, accusing him or her -- without mincing her words -- of lying or withholding information. In other words, she could generate an outright scandal. She was extremely temperamental, but she never had a hidden agenda -- just the desire to tell the truth.

Politkovskaya long ago disappeared from our television screens. The media, and television in particular, is increasingly becoming a business, and business is often incompatible with critical opinions from journalists who cast doubt on statements made by government officials. This is happening everywhere, but unfortunately, as often happens, it becomes monstrous, grotesque and rampant in Russia. There is less and less space for journalism, particularly of the investigative kind.

Some journalists had apparently started a muttering campaign against Politkovskaya, asking why she kept hammering away about Chechnya and nothing else. Nothing can be done, they said. Everyone is fed up with Chechnya, people don't want to hear about it and readers are deserting her newspaper. But she stuck to her guns. In the end she paid with her life.
As the boss of a respected Moscow newspaper said cynically, "She kept on asking for it, and she fell."

Politkovskaya's murder was clearly ordered and was clearly political. It is unimportant whether she was murdered out of revenge, as a warning to others or to prevent the publication of potentially damaging material. The last option seems least likely, because in recent years numerous journalistic exposes have, alas, come directly from the hands of venal officials and lying politicians.

I feel embarrassed for many of my colleagues. Alexander Mamontov, the editor of Russia's oldest and still-respected newspaper, Izvestia, which recently has recently taken an increasingly pro-government line, said that Politkovskaya's professional activities "had not the slightest thing to do with what happened to her." This was just hours after the murder, when no one knew any details of the crime. I wonder what he knew that enabled him to make such a categorical statement.

Meanwhile, people have been found to say, obligingly, that Politkovskaya's murder was a provocation by enemies of the regime. But you could just as easily accuse enemies of the opposition and say that they organized this horrible crime in order to point the finger at the regime's critics.

It is unlikely that the killer and -- more importantly --whoever ordered the murder will ever be found, just as the killer of former Channel One boss and television journalist Vladislav Listyev -- shot to death in his home in 1995 -- has never been found. This is the rule rather than the exception in these cases.

Much will also be said now about how the murder of a journalist should be seen as no less serious a crime than the murder of a politician; that journalism is a public profession and, as such, journalists should be untouchable. I agree completely. But the professional immunity of journalists must be guaranteed before their physical safety.

This immunity does not exist in Russia today, because the state has no respect for journalists' rights to freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Everything springs from this. And for this, the authorities are definitely to blame.

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