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Russian Human Rights Journalist Murdered in Moscow

October 9, 2006 at 6:30 PM EDT
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JEFFREY BROWN: Mourners continued today to lay flowers outside the apartment of a prominent journalist shot to death in Moscow Saturday. Anna Politkovskaya, known for her critical coverage of the war in Chechnya, was found dead in her apartment building. The 48-year-old special correspondent for the independent newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, died from gunshot wounds, one to the head.

The death was the most high-profile slaying of a journalist in Russia since the July 2004 assassination of Paul Klebnikov, the U.S.-born editor of the Russian edition of Forbes magazine.

The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that Russia is the third-deadliest country in the world for journalists over the past 15 years, behind only the conflict-ridden countries of Iraq and Algeria. A new report found that 42 journalists had been killed in Russia since 1992, many of them slain in contract-style executions, and the vast majority unsolved by Russian authorities.

In Moscow this weekend, there was public outrage.

RUSSIAN CITIZEN (through translator): If we don’t defend ourselves and the people don’t defend journalists, more journalists will be killed. This is for sure, because the unlawful government in power is corrupt and the thieves are always afraid of the truth.

RUSSIAN CITIZEN (through translator): She did a lot for Russia. If there were more journalists like her, the country would become more democratic, more prosperous, and more fair.

JEFFREY BROWN: Today, Russian President Putin, in a phone conversation with President Bush, said, quote, “All necessary efforts will be made for an objective investigation into the tragic death of the journalist,” according to the Kremlin.

A voice for Chechnya

Nina Ognianova
Committee to Protect Journalists
She was very unique for Russia, and she is irreplaceable. Her loss is going to be a great loss, not only for her country, but for the people of Chechnya, in particular, whom she covered with great concern.

JEFFREY BROWN: More on this now from Nina Ognianova, program coordinator for Europe and Central Asia for the Committee to Protect Journalists, an independent organization that works on press freedom issues worldwide.

What more, if anything, is known at this point about who might have been behind this killing?

NINA OGNIANOVA, Committee to Protect Journalists: What we know is that Anna Politkovskaya was just about to release a report this Monday about alleged torture in Chechnya by the military services under the command of the Kremlin-appointed prime minister, Ramzan Kadyrov. Several reports in the Russian media said that Anna Politkovskaya was ready to release the material and was actually in possession of two photographs of the alleged torturers, but after her tragic death, the two photographs actually disappeared.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tell us a little bit about her work over the years in Chechnya. What did she write about? How did she go about doing it?

NINA OGNIANOVA: She was very unique for Russia, and she is irreplaceable. Her loss is going to be a great loss, not only for her country, but for the people of Chechnya, in particular, whom she covered with great concern.

She was one of the very few who made frequent trips to the conflict-ridden Chechnya and, for seven years, had covered the Second Chechen War. She concentrated on human rights abuses by the Russian military there on civilians, but also wrote about the dismal conditions in which Russian federal officers, Russian federal soldiers had to operate there.

So her reporting was very compassionate and uncompromising in portraying the human story behind the war.

JEFFREY BROWN: And she had been a very strong critical voice of President Putin.

NINA OGNIANOVA: Yes.

Working under threats

Nina Ognianova
Committe to Protect Journalists
So she was really unique in her position in her visibility to get the story about Chechnya out there, not only for Russians, but also for the international media.

JEFFREY BROWN: She had clearly lived with a lot of danger herself. I understand there had been previous threats on her life.

NINA OGNIANOVA: Yes, Anna Politkovskaya was threatened. She was jailed. She was forced into exile. And she was poisoned en route to her trying to cover the hostage crisis in Beslan in 2004.

In 2001, she wrote a very touching story about missing persons in Chechnya. Following that story, she received death threats by a Russian military officer who pledged that he will go to Moscow, and find her, and kill her. Following that, these threats, Novaya Gazeta insisted that she flee the country, and she fled to Austria for several months.

Afterwards, she continued pursuing this lost story, and I say a lost story for the Russian media, because there were only a couple of -- a handful of media that report on the war on Chechnya in Russia. And she continued talking about the human rights abuses that were committed there, that are being committed there, and not only writing about them, but also making presentations, giving radio and television interviews.

So she was really unique in her position in her visibility to get the story about Chechnya out there, not only for Russians, but also for the international media.

The search to find her killer

Nina Ognianova
Committe to Protect Journalists
The broadcast system is entirely controlled by the Kremlin. There are only, as I said, a handful of publications that do independent and balanced reporting and critical reporting of the Kremlin.

JEFFREY BROWN: And just to place her within the Russian media, she was somewhat unique in working for one of the few independent newspapers, I gather?

NINA OGNIANOVA: Yes. Novaya Gazeta, indeed, is one of the very few news media that cover the war on Chechnya. The broadcast system is entirely controlled by the Kremlin. There are only, as I said, a handful of publications that do independent and balanced reporting and critical reporting of the Kremlin.

Something somewhat ironic is that Anna Politkovskaya was actually gunned down in Moscow on Vladimir Putin's birthday on Saturday. So she was really unique, and she will definitely be very, very missed.

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally, we reported that President Putin had told President Bush that this would be investigated, but the fact is that most of these recent killings of journalists, as I understand, have not been solved?

NINA OGNIANOVA: Yes, well, one clarification is that Putin actually never made a public statement to condemn the murder; that was a conversation that was between the president on an unrelated topic, and he just interjected. That was interjected within the conversation.

But today, as of 6:00, there was no public statement released by the president to either condemn the murder or to offer condolences to the family. And, yes, none of the 13 now contract-style killings of journalists that were committed in Russian under President Putin's tenure have produced any convictions, and definitely none of these cases has the mastermind been identified and prosecuted.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. We'll have to leave it there, Nina Ognianova. Thank you very much.

NINA OGNIANOVA: Thank you.