When some are threatening to kill you, you are protected by their enemies, but tomorrow the threat will come from somebody else … people in Chechnya are afraid for me, and I find that very touching. They fear for me more than I fear for myself, and that is how I survive. (Anna Politkovskaya 2006)
Award-winning journalist Anna Politkovskaya was shot dead on 7 October, her body found slumped in an elevator in her apartment building in Moscow, together with the murder weapon and evidence of four bullets. She was buried on 10 October after a funeral attended by more than a thousand mourners. Her murder bears all the hallmarks of a contract killing, and there can be little doubt that her death is linked to her fearless reporting, particularly on human rights abuses in Chechnya.
Politkovskaya was born in 1958 in New York, and studied journalism at Moscow State University. She worked on the Soviet newspaper Izvestiya for more than a decade, before joining Novaya Gazeta in 1999, one of the few national Russian newspapers to take a consistently critical line on the Kremlin. She worked as special correspondent for the independent Moscow newspaper, and wrote extensively about Chechnya, including the book A Dirty War: A Russian Reporter in Chechnya (2001) and more recently Putin’s Russia (2004). Her most recent book, Russian Diary, is to be published in paperback in Spring 2007. She was working on an article about torture in Chechnya at the time of her death. The piece apparently implicates Moscow-backed Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov, and an unfinished version was published in her paper, Novaya Gazeta, a week after her murder.
Politkovskaya was recognised worldwide for her championing of human rights. She acted as a mediator in the Nord-Ost theatre siege in Moscow in 2002. Two years later she fell seriously ill as she attempted to fly to Beslan to cover the hostage crisis there. After drinking tea on the flight to the region, she lost consciousness and was hospitalised, but the toxin was never identified – the results of her blood tests were reportedly destroyed. This led to speculation that she had been deliberately poisoned to stop her from reporting on the crisis. Politkovskaya was shaken by this. She repeatedly received death threats but continued to write. Her reporting brought her enemies from all quarters. In 2001 she was forced to flee to Vienna after receiving death threats from a military officer accused of committing atrocities against civilians in Chechnya. More recently her investigative journalism incurred the wrath of Kadyrov, who she claimed had also vowed to kill her.
Her murder has reignited worldwide concern about the state of media freedom in Russia. According to the New York-based organisation, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Russia is the third deadliest country in the world for journalists, behind only the conflict-ridden countries of Iraq and Algeria. In a recent report they note that forty-two journalists have been killed in Russia since 1992, many of them slain in contract-style executions. The vast majority of cases – like that of American journalist Paul Klebnikov, Editor of Forbes Russia, gunned down on a Moscow street in July 2004 – have not been solved by the Russian authorities.
Paying tribute to Politkovskaya, CPJ’s Executive Director Joel Simon noted that ‘she became one the leading press-freedom figures of our generation … her death is a great loss to journalism, to her country, and to the service of truth … This is the time for Russian authorities to reverse this year-long assault on independent journalism by bringing Anna Politkovskaya’s killers to justice.’
Human Rights Watch expresses similar concerns that her death ‘worsens an already dangerous climate for those who expose human rights abuses in Russia … The government must publicly and forcefully commit to supporting their work and to showing that it will not tolerate such crimes.’
I have just finished putting together material for a PEN anthology featuring the works of persecuted writers (to be published in Spring 2007 by Profile Books). Politkovskaya’s English translator, Arch Tait, sent me her contribution just a few weeks before this tragedy. Her words open and close this piece, and are disturbingly prescient of her murder. They also demonstrate that, unflinchingly, she remained dedicated to her profession as a campaigning journalist until the very end. Her death is a tragedy to her family, and to those who knew her. Her courage is an inspiration to us all.
Readers may like to send appeals calling for a thorough investigation into the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, and seeking assurances that those responsible will be brought to justice, to:
President of the Russian Federation
c/o HE Mr Yury Viktorovich Fedotov
Embassy of the Russian Federation
13 Kensington Palace Gardens
London W8 4QX
Fax: 0207 229 5804
It is impossible, however, to stop someone fanatically dedicated to this profession of reporting the world around us. My life can be difficult, more often, humiliating …The main thing, however, is to get on with my job, to describe the life I see, to receive visitors every day in our editorial office who have nowhere else to bring their troubles, because the Kremlin finds their stories off-message, so that the only place they can be aired is in our newspaper, Novaya Gazeta. (Politkovskaya 2006)