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Rough Cut: Russia: Putin vs. NGOs
The Last Independent Newspaper in Russia

Read more about Novaya Gazeta, the Moscow-based newspaper where Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya worked before she was murdered.

In 2005, I interviewed Anna Politkovskaya about working as a journalist and a human rights activist in Russia. I remember how tired she sounded on the phone, but she was clearly committed to her work. She told me that she and other activists were motivated by a Russian theory of "little business." "It's a special Russian theory that if you can't change the whole world, you need to do some little things to help specific people," she said.

Politkovskaya's devotion got me interested in reporting on the new Russia, one that is emboldened by oil revenues and capitalism but is seeing a dramatic reversal of democratic reforms and human rights under President Vladimir Putin. Then, in a shocking and unexpected turn, Anna Politkovskaya was murdered in October 2006, before publishing an in-depth investigation of alleged government-sponsored torture in Chechnya.

Politkovskaya's practice of "little business" had finally caught up with her. She was just about to meet her 28-year-old-son, Ilya, who works in a public relations firm in Moscow. I met Ilya for coffee in a Moscow shopping mall in January. Over coffee, he showed me photos of Politkovskaya and explained how he was still in a state of shock. "I am, of course, angry," he said. "But to me she was a mother first and then a journalist."

Ilya told me that for most of his life he accepted his mother's work, but as he grew older he began to fear for her life, asking her to set aside the more dangerous assignments in Chechnya. While Ilya was pleased with his mother's international fame, he said it provided little comfort in Russia, where many people failed to acknowledge Politkovskaya's brave work. The scene outside her apartment was a testament to the waning interest. Just a few wilted carnations decorated the outside of the building.

Ilya Politkovskaya

Anna Politkovskaya's son, Ilya.

Politkovskaya is just one of 14 journalists killed since Putin came to power in 2000. In March, another journalist investigating the government died after "falling" out of his window. I decided to travel to Russia earlier this year to investigate the aftermath of Politkovskaya's murder and meet with other journalists and activists working in Chechnya. My first stop was Novaya Gazeta, the last of the independent newspapers in Russia, where Anna worked as a reporter. In the main newsroom, where heated editorial meetings occur every morning, three photos of slain Novaya Gazeta journalists, including Politkovskaya, are a silent reminder of the grave risks.

Still, journalists at the paper are committed to pursuing stories of government corruption and human rights abuses, no matter what the cost. In 1999, after a series of explosions in apartment blocks in Moscow and two other cities left 300 dead, the paper published a series of articles that offered evidence of involvement by Russian security forces. The authorities blamed Chechen rebels and used the attacks to launch a new wave of repression in Chechnya.

The work often comes at great risk. In the past two months, two more journalists at Novaya Gazeta have received death threats.

The work often comes at great risk. In the past two months, two more journalists at Novaya Gazeta have received death threats. The paper has a dwindling national circulation of 170,000, but it also participates in the practice -- widespread in Russia -- of accepting money from government officials and businessmen to publish pieces as news. This practice increases the risks for reporters critical of the government.

Political editor Andrei Lipski took me on a tour of the offices, showing me the room where Politkovskaya worked on her in-depth pieces. "It was a feature of her character, her main character as a person, not only as a journalist: no compromise," he said. Today, new reporters sit at Politkovskaya's desk. On the day I visited, they argued about stories, worked the phone lines and wrote while smoking furiously. "We have no time to be afraid," Lipski said. "We must work."

Editor Andrei Lipski

Novaya Gazeta editor, Andrei Lipski.

Oleg Panfilov, the head of the Moscow-based Journalism in Extreme Situations, called Russian media the "empire of lies." "From a position of freedom of speech, the situation in the Russian mass media can be estimated as catastrophic," he said. "Television is the core, with more than 90 percent of the population depending on it as their main source of information. But now in Russia all five national telechannels are used by the state for [propaganda], for distribution of an official position." Panfilov said that there is next to no opportunity for Russians to receive independent news.

The campaign to control the media began almost as soon as Putin took office in 2000. His administration attacked the wealthy oligarchs who had privatized -- often illegally and with disastrous effects for regular Russians -- many state enterprises. Some who had dared to use their affluence to support Putin's political opponents decided to flee the country.

But Russians have never had much experience with independent news. "In Russia, there never was freedom of speech. The population had 80 years of communistic propaganda -- they have gotten used to this type of television," Panfilov said. "Only a small part of the population can search for independent sources of information through the Internet, or by the old Soviet tradition of listening to programs of foreign radio stations in Russian."

Russia is the third most dangerous country in which to practice journalism, after Iraq and Algeria, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The lack of interest in independent news was demonstrated recently at the annual Andrei Sakharov journalism awards -- Russia's equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize -- for investigative journalism. Only about two dozen people were present at the awards ceremony in Moscow, with almost no press coverage.

Anna Lebedeva won the top award for her work in a small town in central Russia. During her acceptance speech, she said that because of the danger of her work and the lack of public interest, she was considering switching to "writing restaurant reviews." "It is a terrible situation," said Alexei Simonov, the head of the award committee and the president of the Glasnost Defense Foundation. "If you want to risk your life for very little reward, then join this profession."

Indeed, Russia is the third most dangerous country in which to practice journalism, after Iraq and Algeria, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. In 2006, two journalists were killed in Russia. And two years ago, Forbes' Russian editor, Paul Klebnikov, an American of Russian descent, was shot to death on a Moscow street. The publisher of Forbes' Russian edition has said that the murder is "definitely linked to his professional activity."

Klebnikov often investigated government corruption and the closed-door dealings of the country's wealthiest oligarchs. A new trial has recently been opened in the case, overturning the acquittal of two suspects.

Novaya Gazeta's investigations editor, Roman Shleynov, says that reporters at the newspaper are committed to their work but are stuck between a rock and a hard place. With interest in investigative journalism slipping and reporters working under incredibly dangerous conditions, the paper is clinging to its role as an independent voice in Russia.

"We are considered the last independent newspaper in Russia," said Shleynov. "We have journalists who will continue Anna's work. But in Russia, the murdering of journalists is the tradition."