Flowers for Anna – Russia’s offensive on media and the truth
On a quiet side-street in a well-heeled Moscow neighbourhood two kilometres from the Kremlin, Novaya Gazeta has its headquarters in a drab pink and grey concrete office block.
Fiercely independent since it was set up in 1993 with funds from Mikhail Gorbachev’s Nobel Peace Prize, today the newspaper is one of a dwindling number of free media voices in Russia. Both at home and abroad, it has for years been seen as critical source of solid investigative journalism on the issues that matter most to Russian society.
But that status has come at a price.
Four Novaya Gazeta journalists and contributors, including human rights defenders who worked with the paper, have been murdered; one died a sudden suspicious death; and several others have been assaulted or threatened.
Anna Politkovskaya is undoubtedly the best-known of the newspaper’s fallen heroes. She won numerous awards for her years of dedicated investigative reporting on the restive North Caucasus region. A staunch defender of human rights, she was bitterly opposed to the war in Chechnya and was indefatigable in her mission to expose the truth behind the conflict.
She was gunned down in broad daylight as she entered her Moscow apartment block on 7 October 2006. That date is ironically the birthday of one of her chief adversaries – current Russian President Vladimir Putin – whose role in the Chechen conflict she roundly criticized in her reporting and books.
In June 2014, after years in the courts, five men – two police officers and three members of a Chechen family involved in organized crime – were convicted and imprisoned for her murder. But those who ordered the killing remain at large, and the investigation to hold them accountable has faltered.
Amnesty International has long supported her family, editors and others who continue the struggle for full justice for her murder – in the judicial system, as well as the court of public opinion.
‘The minds of murderers’
From her welcoming smile and affable nature, Elena Milashina’s outward demeanour gives no hint of the peril she faces on a regular basis in her job.
After Anna Politkovskaya’s murder, she took over as Novaya Gazeta’s lead investigative journalist on Chechnya. Now she heads up a desk that has three reporters working on the North Caucasus. Following the murders of Anna in 2006 and the human rights defender and journalist Natalia Estemirova in 2009 in the Chechen capital Grozny, the correspondents are now Moscow-based and travel to the region only to cover key developments, such as important trials.
As with her predecessor, Elena’s work often pits her against highly dangerous people and terrifying situations.
“These people are murderers and they have the minds of murderers,” she said about some of the individuals she routinely interviews and writes about. “For them, the easiest way to dissolve a problem is to kill someone. After several murders of our colleagues, we understood this better than anyone else.”
This is not mere hyperbole. A circular meeting room at the newspaper is named for Anna and other former employees killed for doing their jobs. The portraits of the fallen are lined up along one side of the wall.
Nevertheless, Novaya Gazeta continues to follow the situation in Chechnya very closely. Its reporters regularly expose the widespread human rights violations being committed by Chechen authorities under regional leader Ramzan Kadyrov.
“Our position is that we’re open to talk to anyone. We have a right to ask questions, and we have to keep working. We owe it to the memory of Anna, Natasha [Estemirova] and to help the Chechen people recover from two wars,” Elena said.
“They are still living under a totalitarian regime, but nobody writes about it. Publicity is the only thing that can change the situation.”
Independent media under attack
It’s precisely because of the fear of negative publicity, though, that the Russian authorities have struck back. While Elena assured Amnesty International that Novaya Gazeta’s independence has not been compromised, many independent media outlets in Russia have found themselves increasingly under attack in recent years.
A raft of restrictive laws passed since December 2011 have eroded journalists’ and bloggers’ freedom of expression. A number of independent voices have been gagged, some of them permanently. The result has been that state-run media – especially the state-run central TV channels – now monopolize the airwaves, chilling debate and dissent and causing self-censorship to flourish.
The crackdown intensified in the run-up to Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine in March 2014.
In a move reminiscent of the Soviet-era jamming of radio signals, independent internet news outlets had their sites blocked under new amendments to the Law on Information, Information Technologies and Protection of Information adopted in February. They include: Grani.ru, Kasparov.ru, EJ.ru, the blog of the opposition activist Aleksei Navalny on the Moscow Echo radio station website and the Livejournal.com website which hosts many popular blogs.
Around the same time, the Moscow-based online news site Lenta.ru lost nearly half its employees after the editor-in-chief was replaced by a pro-Kremlin appointee.
Another independent outlet, the opposition cable TV channel Dozhd (Rain), was taken off the air in some areas after it invited a public debate about military decisions made during World War II. It continues to broadcast over the internet.
In today’s Russia, it is getting increasingly difficult to criticize the authorities or publish inconvenient truths. And where the law or other forms of censorship fail to silence the media, physical violence often prevails.
Just last month, a BBC crew came under attack while reporting on the spill-over effects in southern Russia of the armed conflict in neighbouring Ukraine. They were beaten up and had equipment smashed by unknown assailants. When they returned to their car after reporting the incident at a police station, they discovered that their memory cards left inside it had been erased.
Also last month, a Dozhd TV producer was hospitalized after she was attacked outside her home in Moscow.
Since the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, several other journalists have been killed for reporting on thorny topics. Their murders are not being investigated effectively.
No political will for justice
When it comes to demanding justice in Anna Politkovskaya’s case, Novaya Gazeta is among the outlets that has had the beat covered from the start.
But their dedicated reporting has not been enough to hold officials to account and ensure that the judicial system functions properly. Glaring gaps still remain in the public’s knowledge of the case, explained Anna’s son, Ilya Politkovskiy, in a recent meeting with Amnesty International.
“We still know nothing about who ordered the killing, but Russia’s state media is trying to portray that the case is over,” he said.
The Prosecutor’s Office is supposed to be on the victims’ side in court hearings, but Anna’s family have made it no secret that they disagree with the Prosecutor’s legal strategy and the incomplete justice it has delivered after five years and two trials.
Ilya does not dispute the involvement of the five men convicted in June – two of whom received life sentences. But he said he believes they were only mid-ranking law enforcement officials who were in it for the money and had no political interest in his mother’s killing.
“From our point of view, I don’t think they even know who she was,” he said.
Anna Politkovskaya’s family have repeatedly exhorted the five – or anyone else with information – to come forward and testify about who planned and ordered the 2006 murder. But they have so far kept shtum.
“I think we will only have the truth when there is a new government. You need to have political will. After that, everything will go fast and we’ll have results. At the moment it’s going nowhere,” Ilya said.
Amnesty International believes the process has left too many questions unanswered and full justice will not be served until those who ordered Anna’s murder are identified and face the courts.
Flowers for Anna
Anna Politkovskaya and her work are memorialized in a bronze plaque down the side of Novaya Gazeta’s front wall, facing towards the street. On a recent morning, a sole carnation was placed on a plinth underneath.
Following this theme, Amnesty International activists around the world are calling on newspapers in their countries to mark the eighth anniversary of her murder on 7 October. Its activists will create origami flowers representing the front pages of newspapers and print-outs of the online media outlets’ mastheads that have supported this initiative. These flowers will be placed in front of her memorial plaque at Novaya Gazeta.
The action is intended to be a public reminder that while Anna’s life was violently snuffed out, her work to defend human rights and speak truth to power will never be forgotten. People around the world stand in solidarity with her family and former colleagues who continue to demand the truth and full justice for her killing.
Despite the rapidly shrinking space for freedom of expression, many people in Russia are speaking out. Between 6 and 12 October Amnesty International activists stand with them in solidarity during a week of action to make sure Russia’s leaders know that the rest of the world will not be silent. Take action and find out more on www.amnesty.org/Speak-Out-Russia.