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2006-10-09

Anna Politkovskaya, Prominent Russian Journalist, Putin Critic and Human Rights Activist, Murdered in Moscow

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On Saturday, Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was shot dead at her apartment in Moscow. Anna was a correspondent for the Novaya Gazeta newspaper and was an outspoken critic of the Kremlin and its policies in Chechnya. Her reporting on the second Chechen war, torture, mass executions and kidnappings by Russian soldiers made her into one of the country’s most prominent human rights advocates. [includes rush transcript]

Anna was the author of the book, "A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya." Her latest book, "Putin’s Russia," was a fierce indictment of Russia’s corrupt politics and had just been published in the U.S. Anna also acted as a negotiator with Chechen rebels who laid siege to a Moscow theatre in 2002. Here she is speaking at the time.

  • Anna Politkovskaya

In the days before her death, Anna Politkovskaya had been working on a story about torture in the government of Ramzan Kadyrov, the Pro-Kremlin premier of Chechnya. The article was expected to be published today. This is fellow journalist Vyacheslav Izmailov speaking about Anna yesterday.

  • Vyacheslav Izmailov

The Committee to Protect journalists says that since 2000, twelve journalists in Russia have been killed in contract-style murders.

Katrina vanden Heuvel joins me now — she is the editor of the Nation Magazine and a longtime analyst of U.S.-Russian relations.

And we’re also joined by investigative journalist Richard Behar. He is the director of Project Klebnikov — a global media network dedicated to investigating the 2004 murder of Paul Klebnikov–who was the editor-in-chief of the Russian edition of Forbes magazine.

  • Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation and longtime analyst on U.S.-Russian relations.
  • Richard Behar, Investigative journalist who spent nine years with Fortune magazine and before that was a reporter for Time and Forbes Magazine. He is the director of Project Klebnikov.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: On Saturday, Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was shot dead in her apartment in Moscow. She was a correspondent for the Novaya Gazeta newspaper and was an outspoken critic of the Kremlin and its policies in Chechnya. Her reporting on the second Chechen war, torture, mass executions and kidnappings by Russian soldiers made her into one of the country’s most prominent human rights advocates. Anna was the author of the book, A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya. Her latest book, Putin’s Russia, was a fierce indictment of Russia’s corrupt politics and had just been published in the U.S. She also acted as a negotiator with Chechen rebels who laid siege to a Moscow theater in 2002. Here she is, speaking at the time.

ANNA POLITKOVSKAYA: [translated] The guerrillas intended to stay inside the theater to the bitter end, and we’re expecting it to be stormed eventually by Russian forces. They have not made any demands for money, and there will not be any. They came here to die, and they’re waiting for the storming to die in battle.

AMY GOODMAN: In the days before her death, Anna Politkovskaya had been working on a story about torture in the government of Ramzan Kadyrov, the pro-Kremlin premier of Chechnya. The article was expected to be published today. This is fellow journalist Vyacheslav Izmailov speaking about Anna yesterday.

VYACHESLAV IZMAILOV: [translated] Without any doubt, the primary version is her work in Chechnya, and in human rights organizations, her work on saving people. She helped a lot. And there were threats directed against Anna.

AMY GOODMAN: The Committee to Protect journalists says since 2000, twelve journalists in Russia have been killed in contract-style murders.

Katrina vanden Heuvel joins us now. She is the editor of The Nation magazine, a longtime analyst of U.S.-Russian relations. And we’re joined by journalist Richard Behar. He is the director of Project Klebnikov, a global media network dedicated to investigating the 2004 murder of Paul Klebnikov, who was the editor-in-chief of the Russian edition of Forbes magazine. We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Katrina, can you talk about Anna, please?

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Well, Anna was an intense, brave, courageous reporter, whose mission was to document and chronicle the human catastrophe of the war in Chechnya. This is a war, Amy, which, since 1994, in the first and second phases of this war, has killed perhaps 100,000 civilians. But she spoke to — she was one of the few remaining independent correspondents. She worked for one of the few remaining opposition newspapers, Novaya Gazeta, because the media landscape in Russia today is in some ways reminiscent of this country, because oligarchs control so many of the papers. On the other hand, state control of television, I think, is now the real impediment to independent reporting. State — the state now controls the television. And 85% of Russians get their news from television.

The last thing I’d say is, you talked about how twelve journalists have been executed, killed since 2000. What we can’t forget is that since 1992, 42 Russian journalists have been killed in contract-style executions, almost all of their murders unresolved. So, it’s important to see this as a span since ’92, and so much of it is connected to the corruption of this brutal war, what Anna wrote about, the brutality of a war that is a cancer in Russian society and that betrays what Putin claims is his ability to bring security and stability to a country, because since 2002, over a thousand Russians have been killed in terrorist acts, direct responses to an occupation of Chechnya.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you know Anna personally?

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: I knew her a little. I met her in Moscow. I met her in New York. And she was intense. She was aware of the risks she faced, but she was never fearful, because she believed it was the duty of a journalist to report on the truth and reality. And she had a sense of a higher mission. Some journalists in Russia, I fear, felt she was obsessed, had become fanatical in her crusade. But as you see on the streets, the hundreds of people protesting her death suggest this could be a tipping point of sorts, because what’s so crucial — and we were talking earlier — is that Russian journalists unify, organize that there be some solidarity. That may be very hard to accomplish, but it’s going to be needed if Russian journalism can retain some independence in the face of a growing authoritarianism.

AMY GOODMAN: Richard Behar, you have established this project that deals with another journalist who was killed.

RICHARD BEHAR: Yes. Project Klebnikov, which was launched last year on the one-year anniversary of the murder of Paul Klebnikov, the editor of Forbes Russia. And we are also looking into the other murders that have taken place. And I’m sorry to have to be here in light of Anna’s murder two days ago. I met and spoke with Anna over the past year, and she was actually assisting us in putting together a Russian force of journalists that could work with us in some of these cases. And there are very few left who I think are actually suitable candidates at this point. No one’s doing this kind of investigative reporting. Very few are.

AMY GOODMAN: Do we know who killed her?

RICHARD BEHAR: No. And this unfortunately reminds me of how I felt two years ago, when my friend Paul was killed, because the list of candidates is endless. In her book, in Anna’s book about Putin, she attacked him pretty harshly. In her books about Chechnya and her work, she has gone after all kinds of Chechen leaders. It’s been very well known throughout Russia that her campaign against Kadyrov, who is the prime minister, has been very, very intense. So, some suspect that here his forces could be involved. His camp is saying that this has so hurt him, since he would be considered a suspect, that she could have been killed by people trying to discredit him.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Think about the irony — I don’t know if that’s the right word — because we are now in this country, in America, consumed with discussions of torture. At least independent media outlets are doing a lot to expose the abuses and to understand how it flows from the top. And that is what Anna was working on when she was killed: an important investigative article about torture, she alleged, committed by security forces loyal to the Chechen prime minister. The article, it appears, is not to be found. I had hoped that the editors of Novaya Gazeta had it in their computers. Several photographs of those alleged to be implicated are gone.

I would simply say that, at this moment — she’s going to be buried tomorrow. She’s going to be buried in a cemetery, which I visited, next to a young reporter, Dmitri Kholodov, who was killed before 2000 for his reporting, investigative reporting, on the corruption of military equipment. This is a terrible pattern. And it’s important that all weight be brought to bear, international journalistic weight be brought to bear, to bring her murderer to justice. But Novaya Gazeta, I would say again, having visited that paper, having worked with editors at that paper, it’s very important that we support the remaining independent outlets. It’s interesting that the father of Glasnost, the former Russian President, Mikhail Gorbachev, who called her killing a savage crime, a crime against the independent media, against our country, is a minority owner in that newspaper. Whether that protects it, gives it any protection, or whether that means we’re going to see more of a conflict in the political class, will be interesting to watch.

RICHARD BEHAR: Just days before her murder, she spoke on Moscow radio. And, you know, again it reminds me of Paul, because she’s just so tenacious and so courageous and brazen at times. But she said that Kadyrov, the prime minister of — the Russian-supported prime minister, Putin-supported, of Chechnya, she called him a coward armed to the teeth and surrounded by bodyguards. She said, "I have two photographs on my desk now. These photos are of his torture chambers, today and in the past, and people who were kidnapped for no clear reasons." And she went on and on talking about this. This was just days before Saturday. That was Anna.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: I think she also understood and spoke eloquently about how what she called the "Bush-Blair war" gave cover to Putin, who called his war in Chechnya a war against international terrorism, when, in fact, so many analysts understand that it’s the occupation of Chechnya which has fueled and engendered the very terrorism Anna feared and which she tried to defuse, when she stepped outside of her journalistic role to be a mediator in that horrible Moscow theater hostage crisis.

AMY GOODMAN: Didn’t she believe she was poisoned there?

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: She believed she was poisoned on the way to Beslan, another tragedy your listeners may remember, at the school, where I think some 300 people, including so many children, were killed. You know, it’s not the first time. There was another reporter I knew a little named Yuri Shchekochikhin, an investigative reporter who worked for Novaya Gazeta, who was food poisoned — who was poisoned. I know his wife a little, who runs the Union of Journalists Committee. And Novaya Gazeta funded its own investigation, because it didn’t trust the government investigation. And in this case, the same thing — the paper is committed to supporting an investigation. And one of the owners of the paper has put up 25 million rubles, a million dollars, to help flush out, bring to justice the murderer.

AMY GOODMAN: What is Bush’s role with Putin?

RICHARD BEHAR: Bush and Putin have had discussions that I’m aware of about this over the past couple of years. But we have not heard Putin address these murders of journalists in any way. The State Department has been very vocal. The U.S. government has asked Russia repeatedly to allow them to help investigate the Klebnikov murder, for example, and Russia has continuously refused. I believe the Kremlin’s been silent also since Anna’s murder. There’s a pattern. It’s a pattern that we see, and I think the country and certainly the journalism community could use — hearing from President Putin. It would be very helpful at such a miserable, awful and confusing time.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: I think Putin should address this. I think he should meet with journalists — more than meet, but really lay his authority on the line in terms of investigations. But I have to say that I think the United States does best by example, and not by preaching, and not by getting involved, certainly at a governmental level, in these issues. The journalistic community internationally could play a valuable role, but keep it out of the government’s hand. I don’t think at a moment when the United States’s reputation, in terms of democracy issues, not to draw equivalences here, is so tarnished, that this country has a right to go around preaching journalistic democracy to others.

AMY GOODMAN: Wasn’t there this interesting moment in a Putin-Bush press conference about the issue of freedom of the press?

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: They always get it a little mangled, because, you know, Putin talked — I think he talked about Dan Rather and his case, as if CBS was state-controlled. CBS is a flawed network, has a lot of problems, but we’re not looking at the equivalent of our TV networks being taken over by state companies, private companies. That is a Russian problem, which there isn’t equivalence, because the oligarchs, so many of them, have taken over newspapers and other media outlets for their own purposes.

RICHARD BEHAR: The last wonderful TV outlet, independent, was Ren-TV, and the fact they were going to participate in our project, in the investigation, and they are now taken over and more or less silenced into the hands of Kremlin-controlled people.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: The sadness is that "democracy" has become a bad word in much of Russia. Let’s be honest, Putin — much of it may be the control of state television — has popularity ratings ranging between 90% and 75%.

RICHARD BEHAR: Sky-high.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Sky-high.

RICHARD BEHAR: And as long as oil and gas revenues are flowing in tremendously — I was in Russia this summer, and I could see how well people were doing on the streets, and if you look at survey after survey in Russia, they would rather have a strong state than a free press.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: He has become the proponent, the proselytizer of a strong state. But just to contradict Richard a little, I think what democracy is associated with is the de-modernization of a country, because some 60% of Russians live in poverty, according to government statistics. And that is linked to the looting of a country, which is the greatest fire sale of the 20th century, so that so much — 33 billionaires in Russia. We lost that in the Forbes list a couple of weeks ago. Where does that money come from? They’ve seized the assets of the state. And Putin, with all the flaws and the authoritarianism, is trying to retrieve some of those assets. The question is, will he use it for the people? That remains completely unresolved. And in this case, with the war, the war, the cancer in this country, until that is resolved, there will be very little stability.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, the situation in Chechnya today?

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: The situation in Chechnya is brutal. I mean, the possibilities of negotiation have been lost. The radicalization of both sides, the anger, the brutality.

RICHARD BEHAR: The press is largely kept out.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Yeah, the press did play a role in ’94 and ’96, in that first round of war, when it was ended in a form of negotiation, because NTV television was really vibrant at that stage. But the possibilities of stability and security, think of the killing of the central banker, Andre Kozlov, just a few weeks ago, for his attempt to shut down banks involved in money laundering. Contract killings in the streets of Moscow. This is not a model.

RICHARD BEHAR: And this was a direct attack on Putin. This is one of your own reformers going after money laundering, reining in banks, really on the cutting edge. And in a sense, these murderers are saying, "We can do what we want. What are you going to do about it?"

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Impunity. But I have to say, you know, the Washington Post yesterday published an editorial basically attributing Anna Politkovskaya’s brutal murder to the climate of brutality Putin, a KGB agent, as they wrote, has created. It may well be — and we don’t know — that this is an attack on Putin, because there are many elements which hated Anna Politkovskaya, rogue elements, elements in the security ministries, which might like to destabilize Putin. There is a battle underway, even in this closed, increasingly closed political society.

RICHARD BEHAR: In Anna’s book, Putin’s Russia, she wrote, "What is it that makes me dislike him, Putin, so much, as to feel moved to write a book about him? Putin, a product of the country’s murkiest intelligence service, has failed to transcend his origins and stop behaving like a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet KGB. He is still busy sorting out his freedom-loving fellow countrymen. He persists in crushing liberty, just as he did earlier in his career."

AMY GOODMAN: So, tomorrow, the funeral for Anna.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Yeah. It will be an extraordinary event. I have attended — I mean, I attended the — it wasn’t a murder, but I’ve been to journalists’ funerals. This will be at a cemetery, as I said, where she may well be buried next to this young journalist, who all know was killed with no resolution. I suspect hundreds and hundreds of people will come out to say, "We will not permit this assassination to send a chill through pro-democracy human rights activists’ hearts in the community."

But here’s the question: will it be shown on television? I’ve been trying to get in touch with Russian friends to ask, how much of this has been on television? Again, like in our country, 85% get their news — Novaya Gazeta is wonderful, but, you know, it’s like The Nation, 170-180,000 in a country massive. But let’s protect places like Novaya Gazeta and allow them to flourish, because they remain outposts of real journalism.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both very much for being with us, Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation magazine, longtime analyst on U.S.-Russian relations; and Richard Behar, investigative journalist, spent nine years with Fortune, before that was a reporter for Time and Forbes. He’s the director now of Project Klebnikov.

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