Published by The Big Issue in Scotland - March 29th, 2007
It is a savage crime against a professional and serious journalist and a courageous woman. It is a blow to the entire democratic, independent press. It is a grave crime against the country, against all of us.” These were the words of Mikhail Gorbachev following the assassination in Moscow last October of the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya. In his statement, the former Soviet leader and man credited with bringing an end to the Cold War and promoting democracy in Russia, not only echoed the revulsion felt across the world at Politskovskaya’s death, but also the fear that the reporter’s murder was the latest blow to democracy in the former superpower.
Politkovskaya, a 48-year-old award-winning journalist and author, wrote for the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta. She established her reputation through reports about human rights abuses by Russian troops in Chechnya, where she faced threats from Chechen bandits and both Russian and Chechen government death squads. Her reputation and trenchant reporting made here a thorn in the side of the Russian government, particularly to President Vladimir Putin whom she was highly critical of. Her diaries, a book finished shortly before she was killed, has just been published and it paints a damning picture of Putin‘s Russia and his retreat from democracy.
When Poltikovskaya fell seriously ill in 2004 with food poisoning while on her way to report on the Beslan school siege, many observers believed it was the first attempt on her life - the second resulted in the untimely death of the mother-of-two. Ms Politkovskaya was found on October 6th, 2006, in a lift at her apartment block in Moscow. A pistol and five bullets were found near her body. Ms Politkovskaya’s murder, which came on the day of Putin’s birthday, had all the hallmarks of a contract killing and many people pointed the finger at Putin, accusing the former KGB officer of silencing another of his critics. But Putin condemned the killing and dismissed allegations of his involvement as part of a continuing smear campaign by opponents to stir-up anti-Russian feelings. The president gave a similar response just over a month later when he was accused of being involved in the murder of another critic, the former Russian spy, Alexander Litivenko, poisoned in London with radiation.
Whatever the truth, what is certain is that Politkovskaya was the 12th Russian journalist to have died in mysterious circumstances since 2000. The 13th death came on March 2nd, 2007, when the investigative journalist Ivan Safronov, 51, was found dead at the bottom of the block of flats where he lived in Moscow. It is unclear whether Safronov jumped or was pushed, but according to media reports, in the weeks before his death the father-of-two told friends he had uncovered sensitive information about Russian arms sales to the Middle East. This would have made him a potential target for retribution and Safronov's colleagues at the Kommersant daily newspaper said he was far from suicidal. I
n the wake of these deaths, Amnesty International expressed concern over the safety of all independent journalists in Russia saying that death threats are becoming “the sinister, everyday fare” for any reporter who dares to probe sensitive topics. And there are many examples of such intimidation. Oksana Chelysheva and Stanislav Dmitrievskii, two journalists following in Politkovskaya‘s footsteps and investigating human-rights abuses in Chechnya, have both been threatened; Stanislav Dmitrievskii, the editor-in-chief of the Pravo-zashchita newspaper, was convicted in February 2006 for publishing stories which were critical of Moscow’s role in the Chechen conflict: and Larisa Yudina, editor of the Sovetskaia Kalmykia Segodnia newspaper, who was found dead on 8th June, 1998, with multiple knife wounds and a fractured skull.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists Russia is now the most dangerous country for journalists after Iraq and Afghanistan and Allison Gill, Director of the Russian Office of Human Rights Watch, said that freedom of speech is under a death threat in Russia. She told The Big Issue: “Of the 13 contract-style murders of journalists in Russia, none of the killers has been brought to justice; in most cases, the authorities have failed even to undertake a meaningful investigation.” Gill added that, increasingly, critical press is deemed criminal and that the Kremlin has brought the media in Russia firmly to heel in a series of takeovers that has resulted in all national television stations and most national newspapers being controlled by the Kremlin, or pro-Kremlin companies. Journalists face criminal penalties including fines, corrective labour and jail time for offences such as libel and insulting a public official.
Recent changes to the law on extremism designate certain kinds of libel against government officials and printing “justifications of terrorism” as criminally extremist acts which could result in the closure of newspapers that print them. This sustained attack on democracy has provoked strong criticism and the International Federation of Journalists said the killing of Politkovskaya reflects a state of lawlessness that is threatening to overwhelm Russian journalism. Although Putin recently acknowledged the persecution of journalists on February 1st, 2007, saying he would protect the “press corps”, his words seem hollow in light of developments since. These include a court ordering Kommersant to pay compensation to the newly-elected Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov for printing a critical article about him.
Meanwhile, a journalist in the Vladimir region was tried for criminal defamation after making remarks about the region’s governor in an internet chat room. But Russians reputedly prefer strong leaders and as Russia’s fortunes have risen through oil and gas, Putin has become increasingly assertive, particularly in his international dealings. He recently told EU leaders their biggest task was not to lecture Russia on democracy, human rights and energy cooperation but to “safeguard Christianity in Europe“. For critics of Putin, democracy is in reverse in Russia, from the energy threats of Gazprom to the nationalistic rhetoric of many of the nation’s politicians. NGOs have been targeted and accused by Putin of engaging in political activity.
John Watson, director of Scotland Amnesty International said human rights activists have been harassed, prosecuted and in some cases subject to arbitrary detention. He said: “Some have even disappeared, including Artur Akhmatkhanov, a young Russian human rights activist. In some cases the prosecution of activists under anti-extremism and anti-racial hatred laws has amounted to a violation of the basic right to peaceful freedom of expression.” There is concern that Putin’s autocratic rule is dragging Russia back towards the type of authoritarian leadership associated with former Soviet dictatorships. Dr Cameron Ross, an expert in Russian studies from Dundee University and author of “Russian Politics Under Putin”, said that when Putin came to power he declared he would develop the nation’s fledgling democracy. “However, the actual record of his regime puts these pronouncements into doubt and for many observers Putin is recreating all the trappings of a fully fledged authoritarian state,” Dr Ross said. All policies both foreign and domestic must promote Russia’s interests and strengthen the Russian state. All other concerns are of secondary importance, including human rights and democratic freedoms. Throughout his presidency, Dr Ross said, Putin has sought to eliminate alternative sources of political power and he has attacked or arrested those with political ambitions. He has also carried out sweeping reforms of Russia’s political system and his dominance over the Duma is now almost total with 300 of the 450 deputies and the upper house now firmly under his control. The individual rights of Russian citizens, Dr Ross said, especially those living in Chechnya are abused now more than at any time since the collapse of the Soviet Union and Putin’s ideas of freedom of speech seem to be that which existed in the USSR - you are free to speak as long as you do not challenge the state.
Putin’s use of the term traitor to describe not just Chechen rebels but also journalists and environmentalists implies a concept of patriotism that does not sit well with democratic pluralism and the rule of law. There has also been a broadening under Putin of what is defined as ‘state secrets’ to encompass information on emergency situations, disasters, crime, violations of human rights, gold and hard currency reserves, and violations by government agencies and officials. Under the Soviet Union, everything was categorised either as Soviet or anti-Soviet - under Putin everything is either state or anti-state. He has seized control of all national television networks including ORT, NTV, and RTR, and, according to a leaked Kremlin strategy document cited by Dr Ross, “opposition media should be driven to financial crisis, their licences and certificates withdrawn and conditions created where the work of every single opposition medium is either controllable or impossible. Dr Ross said: “What we see in the media today is self censorship in the media. Putin will use the tax police or the FSB to close down newspapers or radio or television stations.
Russia can now best be classified as an ‘electoral authoritarian’ dictatorship. After a decade of economic and political turmoil, Putin has undoubtedly brought much needed economic and political stability to Russia’s transition-weary citizens, but this stability has been achieved at a very high cost - at the sacrifice of democracy and human rights.” Ends. Copyright, Billy Briggs, 2007.
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.