Dark Side
Journalist Murder a Conundrum
By Anna Arutunyan, Moscow News 12/10/06
Oct 15, 2006 - 7:59:00 AM

As Russians and Westerners mourned the Novaya Gazeta writer, and as investigators vowed to find the killer, what became increasingly unclear was the precarious position of the Russian journalist - as the cases of Forbes editor Paul Klebnikov and now Politkovskaya illustrate - as both observer and participant in politics, as someone both inside and outside the law.

Politkovskaya, a prominent reporter for the virulently oppositionist Novaya Gazeta weekly and other publications critical of the Kremlin since the late Nineties, was gunned down in the elevator of her Moscow apartment after returning from a supermarket at about 5 p.m. on Saturday. She died on the spot from two gunshot wounds. The fact that the weapon was left at the scene of the crime led investigators to conclude that it was a professional contract murder. While officials were initially silent about the attack, days later President Vladimir Putin condemned the murder, while Prosecutor General Yury Chaika vowed to take the investigation under his personal control. This reaction, however, followed international demands to find the killers, hinting that the Russian journalist (much like Paul Klebnikov, who was gunned down in the summer of 2004) was better known abroad than at home.

Journalist or Rights Activist?

Oftentimes, Politkovskaya's investigative reporting aimed not so much to uncover a hidden truth as to blame an official. During a reporting trip in 2001, Politkovskaya was detained by military officials in the Chechen village of Hotuni. When she was released, she wrote that she had uncovered pits dug out in the ground where military officials would allegedly keep Chechen hostages for ransom, directly accusing General Baranov, then commander of the Chechen federal troops, of these crimes. The publication was followed by a criminal investigation based on the allegations, but a delegation of official human rights envoys was unable to find any such pits. At a later press conference in Moscow, Politikovskaya admitted that she had never actually seen the pits herself, but that witnesses related seeing them to her. In another account she had said the ransoms was $150, while in another - $500.

Unfortunately, while inaccuracies like these typically serve to discredit Western news organizations, they are very common in the Russian media. And while sloppy reporting is indeed most often the culprit, in high-profile cases like Politkovskaya's, there's another factor that is beyond the control of journalists - the desire to make a difference coupled with the utter impossibility of verifying information. Another telling example was Politkovskaya's recent allegations that special forces were preparing an "escape" for jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, in the course of which he was to be killed. Her source was a retired KGB officer who had served time in the camps. While the article was published in Novaya Gazeta this spring, these allegations went nowhere.

Hence, Politkovskaya was primarily viewed as an activist rather than reporter. When terrorists held an auditorium hostage during the Nov. 2002 production of Nord-Ost, she spoke to the hostage takers and made their demands public. In Sept. 2004, terrorist in the Beslan school siege had also demanded her presence.

Against this backdrop, it would seem that despite a brave and sincere commitment to unraveling corruption and atrocities wherever possible, Politkovskaya's priorities as a journalist focused more on accusing and less on reporting. But this can be said of many Russian journalists working today. "Politkovskaya's role in national journalism was rather strange," writes political observer Oleg Kashin in a Vzglyad magazine column. "She was not a representative of Russia's journalistic community.... She was a newsmaker, not a journalist."

Amid Western accusations of a "worsening climate" for journalists in "Putin's Russia," the tragic murder shows just how simplistic that understanding can be. Writes Kashin, who worked as a Kommersant reporter for several years, "Journalism in today's Russia is not capable of seriously impacting the situation in the country, or the powers that be."


The Prosecutor General's office is currently examining three versions of the murder. According to one, Politkovskaya may have fallen victim to a group of corrupt policemen. According to the Kommersant daily, her investigations in Hotumi in 2001 had led to the arrest of Sergei Lapin, one of a gang of policemen who allegedly tortured and killed civilians. Lapin was sentenced to 11 years in prison, but other members of the gang are still at large.

Another version involves allegedly oppositionary forces bent on discrediting Putin and Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov. In this case, the purported culprit is exiled tycoon Boris Berezovsky, also a vocal critical of the president. Berezovsky, in a statement to Kommersant, said that "everything bad that happens in Russia is very often blamed on its enemies, including myself." Yet a third version puts the blame on Chechens allegedly attempting to smear Kadyrov.

Indeed, at first glance, a "Chechen trail" appeared all but obvious, and Reporters without Borders cited it as the most convincing motive. Politkovskaya was working on an article about torture and abductions in Chechnya - she mentioned in an interview to Svoboda radio on Friday that she was a witness in a related investigation. Editors at Novaya Gazeta, who say they received only part of her article (once again, her sources were witnesses of the alleged torture), tend to adhere to this theory as well.

Meanwhile, in an interview to kavkaz.memo.ru, given just an hour and a half before her death, she hinted at having documented evidence that Kadyrov was using forced labor to erect airports, schools and hospitals for show in the war-ravaged republic. "[Kadyrov] forced and coerced others to pay for this construction," she told the site. "It was not paid for by the federal budget.... Today I have copies of complaints from Emergency Ministry officials who claimed they were forced to pay up to 13,000 rubles [about $480] from their salaries." In the meantime, Politkovskaya alleged that Kadyrov was trying to get federal funding to compensate these projects, which was refused on grounds that he could not provide documentation on how he had funded the construction out of the regional budget.

That Politkovskaya could have been a victim of Kadyrov's revenge was a theory widely circulated by Russian journalist bloggers, who cited that Chechnya's former prime minister, Sergei Abramov, had also tried to investigate the source of funds used to rebuild the republic, until he was injured in a "suspicious" car accident.

But other experts are skeptical, doubting that Kadyrov would be careless enough to undermine his credibility before the Kremlin for the sake of taking revenge on allegations that have been voiced for years. Indeed, by targeting the author of those allegations, he would be giving them additional credibility. "Politkovskaya was not really an inconvenient figure for anyone," the former dissident and political scientist Gleb Pavlovsky said in an interview on the pro-government kreml.org site. "But because of the bias of her reporting, she was a very convenient target. And that means that she was most likely the victim of provocateurs."

Ramzan Kadyrov made a careful statement to the press this week that while not all of Politkovskaya's publications were objective, he would never attack a woman. "She wrote articles based on talking to people in the street," he told Interfax. He blamed "black PR" carried out by his enemies and the enemies of his late father.

Whatever the case, Politkovskaya's death is added to the roster of dozens of journalists killed in Russia (and, contrary to current Western headlines, by far not all of them during Putin's time). The loudest among them - the murders of Vladislav Listyev (1995), Dmitry Kholodov (1994), and Paul Klebnikov (2004) - are still murky, pointing to a trail not so much of a government-sanctioned crackdown on the press, but on debilitating corruption in Russia's law enforcement and siloviki structures (incidentally, Pavlovsky, a pro-Putin analyst, speculated that the Politkovskaya's murder could be linked to siloviki structures). Probably one of the most sober assessments of the impact of Politkovskaya's murder on the nation's future was given by none other than President Putin. "The influence Politkovskaya had on political life in Russia was very insignificant," he told journalists during a visit to Germany this week. "The murder dealt a more serious blow to the reputation of the government than did her publications."

Source: Ocnus.net 2007