A Murder Most Foul: The Killing Of Anna Politkovskaya And The Death Of Journalistic Freedom In Russia

Posted on June 20, 2014 in GlobeScope, Specials

By Atharva Pandit:

Anna Politkovskaya’s murderers, who were also the brutal killers of one beautiful and brave voice of the Russian freedom of speech, were convicted and sentenced to a life in prison on 9th of June. Anna, an investigative journalist working for an obscure but now infamous daily, Novya Gazeta, was gunned down as she exited from the lift of her apartment building. Three bullets lodged inside her chest, one, a “controlled shot”, inside her head. She was a daring crusader of justice for those who suffered the atrocities of Chechnya, and who showed how the Russia under Putin was like former USSR, a combination of “worst of both worlds”, combining Mafia capitalism with KGB policing, in a book titled Putin’s Russia.

Journalism in today’s Russia is a dangerous job to do, and especially so if you find yourself conveniently on the wrong side of Putin, who hates critics and likes to silence them in any which way possible (he also likes to pose bare-chested, a la James Bond, but that’s flour for another sack). Thus, Putin comes about as someone in whose court democratic rights are ignored and dictatorial rule, if only behind closely guarded doors, practiced. That’s no surprise, considering that Putin was a KGB guy, albeit of no real importance, posted in Dresden during the Cold War era, far removed from the action, and not even working undercover. After the fall of Berlin Wall, even, he was called back to St. Petersburg and not to Moscow, thus highlighting that he was of no significance in the spy service. But that changed. And it changed because Boris Yeltsin decided that this obscure spy agent, who once denied taking a bribe from an influential oligarch and attended the very same oligarch’s wife’s birthday party when everybody of any importance decided to shun it, should succeed him. And so, a campaign to make this less-than-obscure agent into a sly, popular leader was launched. It worked, as Putin began to climb up the ladders, then unflatteringly displaying his true colors, so that he is now pulling Russia back to the Soviet times- or even worse, insofar as the control on media and curtailing of human rights is concerned.

The number of journalists targeted for their work in Russia is overwhelming. Another high-profile case which went nowhere was that of Paul Klebnikov, the editor-in-chief of Forbes Russia, which was where he went on to proclaim that Boris Berezovsky, the multi-millionaire oligarch of Russia, was also the Godfather of Kremlin. Berezovsky was, indeed, the oligarch from whom Putin refused the bribe, whose wife’s birthday party he attended and who was once the biggest champion of Putin. So when Klebnikov wrote against Berezovsky, and not just wrote but also began investigating into his corruption scandals, the state had to do something. So, they gunned him down with a 9-millimeter Makarov pistol on 9th of July, 2004. Four bullets lodged inside the emerging journalist’s stomach – the guy obviously knew too much. Yuri Petrovich Shchekochikhin, another investigative journalist working for Novya Gazeta, was poisoned for his investigations into the Moscow apartment bombings, which he suspected, like so many others, were carried out by the Russian authorities as a pretext to start the Chechen War. He wrote on the atrocities in Chechnya, corruption, Russian military and everything wrong with Putin’s Russia, so Putin decided to straighten Shchekochikhin right. After a sixteen day illness, Shchekochikhin succumbed on 3rd July, 2003. There was wide-spread belief that this was an assassination, a murder. Investigations into the death led nowhere. When the authorities are not busy killing off liberal intellectuals, they are busy firing them from their posts. Take, for example, the chief editor of Russian web newspaper Lenta.ru, Galina Timchenko, who was fired from her post for publishing material which was tagged as “extremist”. The so-called extremist material was an interview with Ukraine’s ultra-nationalist group, Right Sector, which, the authorities alleged, incited ethnic hatred through the interview, and thus through the news website. Another blow to the already under scanner and embattled independent journalism in Russia, where if you have to sustain, you need to either keep quite or ally yourself with the authorities – or both.

Anna Politkovskaya was trying to keep herself free from both. She visited the war-torn Chechnya more than any other journalist did, and sent her dispatches from the devastated parts, those of mothers mourning their lost sons, the descriptions of fighting and those of torture and hope. She wrote of the atrocities, and she wrote of the lack of human rights in Chechnya, for which she was threatened countless times by almost everybody in authority- and everyone also agreed amongst themselves that Anna was one hell of a thick-skinned reporter, brave and recklessly courageous. As she made her way to Beslan in order to negotiate with the hostage-takers holding captive over 1,100 students and teachers, she had played a part in negotiations during the Nord-Ost hostage taking, she was poisoned on the flight offered to her at a short notice. She observed that something was fishy later on, the fact that initially she was told that no flight was available to Beslan and then eventually an airhostess offered her a seat on the one flight scheduled to land near the said destination, and the illness that crept through her once she sipped the midflight tea, everything sounded a bit off. Even so, the poisoning attempt was a failure, since Politkovskaya recovered, and was back at kicking the hornet’s nest again. She knew the consequences, they would get to her eventually, but she did not fear that, all that mattered to her was that the truth should be out for everyone to see. The truth of Russian corruption and inhumanity, the truth of the Russian politics – price of revealing it be damned.

And the price, as we all know, were the bullets. Nearly a year after her assassination on 7th October 2006, in August 2007, it was revealed in a news conference in Moscow that 10 suspects were taken into custody in connection with the murder. Three of the men who now stand convicted were acquitted earlier, but were investigated again upon retrial. Although the man who pulled the trigger – the man who we see in a CCTV footage shooting Anna and then tossing the gun beside her body, Rustam Makhmudov, was given a life sentence along with his uncle Ali Gaitukayev, who organized the murder, the mastermind behind the assassination is not known. Other three accused received 12, 14 and 20 years behind the bars.

But is this a closure? Not really. As mentioned, the mastermind is still roaming free; those put on trial and convicted are only just pawns which were being directed by someone higher up in the authority. Rightly, many activists and even Politkovskaya’s own family suggest that they would fight on until the actual men behind the murder are brought to justice. Anna’s newspaper is running a personal investigation into the assassination, and its spokesperson, Nadezhda Prusenkova stated that the sentencing was important, but only a step towards the truth. “Those sentenced are the lowest level in this criminal chain, which must be revealed and punished,” she said in a statement.

Freedom of speech and expression in Russia is an important issue to tackle. And it has become so because Vladimir Putin doesn’t like the media nor does he like the liberal thinkers of Russian intelligentsia. Those who he doesn’t like, he shoves away. It is debatable that he played a role in every high-profile murder of intellectuals and journalists in Russian land or even foreign soil in the past decade or so, but in case of Anna’s brutal silencing, almost everyone suspects the Russian leader played a role. She was, after all, the staunchest critic of Putin’s working in Russia – and what would have Putin liked more as a birthday gift than to put an end to one of his harshest critics?