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Russia's War on Words

A woman holds a portrait of slain Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya during a rally in Moscow last year.
A woman holds a portrait of slain Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya during a rally in Moscow last year. (By Mikhail Metzel -- Associated Press)
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By K. Anthony Appiah
Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Three years ago today Anna Politkovskaya, a courageous journalist who exposed appalling human rights offenses in Chechnya, was shot five times as she entered her Moscow apartment building. She was not the first Russian journalist to be slain for performing the invaluable function of bringing buried truths to light. Sadly, there have been, and will be, more murders. And we all pay the price.

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Westerners were inclined to think during the Cold War that a democratic Russia would be better for Russians and for us. Yet 20 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, hopes for genuine democracy in Russia remain unrealized. A major reason is the parlous condition of the Russian media.

In the United States, an investigative journalist who unsettles the powerful can win accolades; in Russia, such a journalist can expect to be gunned down. A liberal democracy depends on reporters who follow the story and publish what they learn. It cannot flourish when the pursuit of investigative journalism carries an informal death penalty.

This year alone has been terrible for the brave journalists who are continuing the work for which Politkovskaya gave her life.

In July the human rights activist Natalya Estemirova was kidnapped outside her home in Grozny, Chechnya; her bullet-ridden body was found hours later in Ingushetia, another of the troubled regions of Russia. Last October, Estemirova had received the first Anna Politkovskaya award from the human rights group Reach All Women in War.

In January, Stanislav Markelov, a leading human rights attorney and president of the Russian Rule of Law Institute, was fatally shot in Moscow as he left a news conference he had called to protest the release of a Russian officer convicted of atrocities in the Chechen war. Markelov, a close friend of Estemirova, was known for his work representing victims of torture and journalists, including Politkovskaya. Anastasia Baburova, a student journalist for the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta (which had employed Politkovskaya), was also shot and died hours later.

It is not only those covering Chechnya who are at risk. Last November, Mikhail Beketov, the editor of a newspaper in Khimki (northwest of Moscow) who had been reporting on local government corruption, was beaten nearly to death and then left in the freezing cold; he lost a leg and fingers to frostbite. In February the editor of a local weekly in Solnechnogorsk (further northwest of Moscow) was found unconscious and bleeding. He had published articles critical of local politicians.

Speaking of Anna Politkovskaya in December 2006, Estemirova said: "It's extremely clear to me that those who killed her thought that they were silencing her, but that is not the case. Because now in Novaya Gazeta, in the space where her articles are published, there is and there will be information from Memorial" -- the internationally recognized Russian human rights organization.

But since Estemirova's murder, Memorial has closed its offices in Grozny, and many who worked to report human rights abuses have fled the region.

There is every reason to believe that the murders of these journalists are assassinations: politically motivated killings carried out or covered up by members of the Russian intelligence services, and ignored by a government whose first duty is to protect the lives and liberties of citizens. Sadly, what Estemirova said about Politkovskaya's murder is likely to be true of all such killings: "Even if we find out who pulled the trigger, the person who gave the order will remain unknown."

Russia no longer needs gulags to silence the opposition. The punishment for drawing attention to the sins of the mighty used to be a show trial and exile, possibly to a labor camp. Now journalists receive an anonymous but credible threat of violence to themselves or their families, a beating on their doorstep or, in some cases, execution in broad daylight.

Journalists are not the only victims of this policy of terror. Russia claims to be a member of the global community of democratic nations. But democracy is not functioning when citizens are denied basic information with which to judge the actions of their leaders. We are often told, for example, that the Russian government's policies in Chechnya are "popular" at home. But can we hold Russian citizens responsible for what their country does if they do not know what it is really doing? Democratic choices made in ignorance are not free but fixed. The freedom of journalists to report about life in their societies is critical, because without it, citizens lose their freedom, too.

Americans were right to hope that the end of the Soviet system would bring rewards for us as well as for the people of Russia. But democracy only starts at the ballot box. Independent speech is crucial. We must do all we can to support journalists in this important work, including pressuring the Russian government to protect reporters and their freedom to speak. The murder of journalists affects more than just journalists; and the undermining of Russian democracy is a problem for more than just Russia.

The writer, a philosophy professor at Princeton University, is president of the board of trustees of the PEN American Center, the U.S. branch of the world's oldest international literary and human rights organization.




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