The murder that killed free media in Russia

A decade after the assassination of Anna Politkovskaya, news organisations increasingly avoid topics that could anger the Kremlin

No other reporter has been assigned Anna Politkovskaya’s desk in Novaya Gazeta’s newsroom. It remains as a memorial, alongside her photograph and those of other murdered journalists at the newspaper, and as a reminder of the danger of the work.

Ten years after Politkovskaya was shot in the lobby of her apartment block in Moscow, Novaya Gazeta continues to be one of the few outlets for hard-hitting independent journalism in Russia. Its reporters still work from the North Caucasus, one the most dangerous part of the region.

In September, Elena Kostyuchenko, a reporter with Novaya, travelled to Beslan in North Ossetia to cover the 12th anniversary of the siege in which 334 people died, including 186 children.

Politkovskaya had attempted to make the same journey back in 2004, but fainted on the plane on her way there. Doctors believe she was poisoned to prevent her from reporting.

Nevertheless, Novaya worked tirelessly to investigate what happened at Beslan, and published a number of reports suggesting explosives planted by Russian special forces to try to end the siege had been responsible for many of the deaths.

This September, a number of mothers of victims, who have long campaigned for an independent investigation into the events of the siege, planned a protest to mark the anniversary and wore T-shirts bearing the words: “Putin is the butcher of Beslan”.

Kostyuchenko and a photographer who went to cover the event were followed, intimidated, doused in green paint and beaten up during their time in the town. Kostyuchenko spent a week in hospital with concussion after being hit in the head.

Two girls hug in the destroyed school gym in Beslan.
Two girls hug in the destroyed school gym in Beslan in 2004. Photograph: Yuri Tutov/AFP/Getty Images

Despite being just 29, Kostyuchenko has already worked for Novaya for 11 years. Her stories include one of the most detailed accounts of the mechanisms by which Russians fought in the contested regions of east Ukraine.

She started writing for the local newspaper in her home town of Yaroslavl as a teenager as a way to make ends meet. “I thought what I was doing was journalism. Then one day when I was about 15 I bought Novaya Gazeta from a kiosk while I was waiting for the dentist, and started to read one of Politkovskaya’s stories about Chechnya. I was in shock and my world was turned upside down. I understood I didn’t know anything about our country. I decided that if I wanted to be a journalist I would have to work for Novaya Gazeta.”

She went to Moscow to study and applied to work at the paper; she has been there ever since. In her first months at the newspaper, Kostyuchenko was too scared to approach Politkovskaya, because she felt too young and inexperienced. “I was scared of looking silly. I thought that I would first become a good journalist, do some work I could be proud of, and then tell her how her writing changed my life.” She never got the chance.

In the decade since Politkovskaya’s death, the space for independent journalism in Russia has narrowed further.

Since 2006, the Committee to Protect Journalists has recorded 20 journalists’ killings, while Freedom House has counted 63 violent attacks on reporters. But for the most part, the threat of closure keeps publications in line and encourages self-censorship.

Reporters without Borders activists demonstrate in Berlin in 2009 with images of human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov, and Novaya Gazeta journalists Anastasia Baburova and Anna Politkovskaya.
Reporters without Borders activists demonstrate in Berlin in 2009 with images of human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov, and Novaya Gazeta journalists Anastasia Baburova and Anna Politkovskaya. Photograph: Michael Kappeler/AFP/Getty Images

A number of news sources have been built up into formidable publications, only to be cut back down to size.

The editorial heads of were replaced by its owner when the news website was seen as taking its Kremlin criticism too far; the independent television station TV Rain was forced to broadcast from an apartment after being kicked out of its studios; and most recently, there was a purge of the newspaper RBC after a string of reports on the wealth of Vladimir Putin’s inner circle and an investigation into one of the president’s daughters.

Angry RBC journalists taped their conversation with the two new editors appointed to take over the newspaper. The new bosses compared the work of the paper to driving: “If you drive over the solid double line, they take away your licence... Unfortunately, nobody knows where the solid double line is.”

In a media landscape where most people steer clear of the solid double lines, another rare independent voice in the Russian media landscape is the New Times, a weekly political magazine with sharp design and even sharper analysis, edited since its founding nearly a decade ago by veteran journalist Yevgenia Albats.

The magazine is permitted to survive because of its small circulation, but nevertheless has frequent problems. Recently, its publisher refused to release an issue with a cover illustration of sheep at the Kremlin’s gates. “We’d been using the publishers since 2008 and we didn’t owe them a cent, and then suddenly they just refused to publish us,” said Albats.

Many oligarchs are subscribers and the presidential administration orders 13 to 15 copies, Albats said, yet it is almost impossible to find companies willing to advertise in the publication. It is kept afloat by five sponsors, all Russian citizens, most of whom wish to remain anonymous because of the risk to their reputations.

The war in Ukraine, which began in 2014, has left the media even more polarised. The popular state television anchor Ernest Mackevičius told hundreds of journalism students at a youth camp last summer that the definition of journalism had changed, insisting that western media lied about Russia, so Russia had to respond in kind. “You understand that for the past year and a half, we have worked as part of the government, because information today has become a very serious and effective weapon.”

In the decade since Politkovskaya’s death Kostyuchenko has had opportunities to move elsewhere, but says she values the rare journalistic freedom of Novaya Gazeta. In 2015 she catalogued the involvement of Russian soldiers in the war in east Ukraine, an involvement furiously denied by the Kremlin and a taboo subject for Russian journalists.

“I was offered $10,000 a month to work on television, and at Novaya Gazeta I earn the same as my sister earns selling jeans in Yaroslavl. But we [at the newspaper] have no censorship, and that’s important.”


Shaun Walker in Moscow

The GuardianTramp

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