Journalism, at its best, goes beyond the bald recitation of facts. Sometimes it fails, and sometimes it succeeds, but it always carries the responsibility of giving a voice to the voiceless. It gives us facts we do not know while giving us a perspective that we can’t find anywhere else.
Such a journalist was Anna Politkovskaya.
The Chechen struggle for independence from Russia has been undermined and overshadowed by the violent acts of a handful of extremists. Everyone knows of the downing of the Russian jetliners and the horrific siege at Beslan.
Not everyone is as familiar with Chechen separatists being picked up by Russian military or police and being found dead days later, or the routine beatings doled out by Russian authorities as they struggle to hang onto the last remnants of their former empire. Nor are they familiar with the stories of Chechens crowded into refugee camps, nor had they heard the tales told by injured Russian soldiers fighting an insurrection for reasons that no one could explain in terms that made any sense.
Those were the stories that Anna Politkovskaya told. And perhaps they were the stories that got her killed. She was murdered in the elevator of her Moscow apartment building yesterday.
Russia can be a dangerous place to be a journalist. Politkovskaya’s death makes her the 23rd Russian journalist murdered in the last decade, and the 12th since Vladimir Putin’s rise to power. The murders generally consist of a modus operandi familiar to policemen that routinely see contract killings--- Two shots close up with a small caliber gun, which is abandoned at the scene with no fingerprints on it. This was no exception.
Politkovskaya had left Russia for a short time in 2001 after receiving threats from Sergei Lapin, a Russian military officer that had been the subject of one of her stories dealing with the Russian military torturing civilians.
When Chechen separatists seized a Moscow theater, she was one of a handful of individuals that was allowed to go inside and try to negotiate an end to the crisis. When Chechens seized the school in Beslan, she was on her way to negotiate a settlement when she fell mysteriously ill on the plane with something closely resembling food poisoning shortly after drinking a cup of tea.
The odds that we’ll ever learn who killed her or why are slim. The Russian government doesn’t tend to vigorously pursue people who silence its critics. Such is the environment created by Vladimir Putin, one of our “partners in peace” that, like many of our other “partners in peace”, tends to do things and allow things that make American skin crawl.
As we all grew up, we were all taught to detest the Soviet Union for the way it treated its people. Among the many reasons we were given were the fact that it had no free press.
The Soviet Union is a memory now. But there’s still no free press, apparently. If the Russian government has nothing to do with these murders, then it certainly doesn’t care who did.