The Symbolism Behind the Murder of Anna Politkovskaya in Russia
Author: Spencer Harvey, 2018.
“On October 7, 2006, Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya left her apartment in Moscow to run errands (Smith 493), just as she would on any normal autumn day…”
Image from Amnesty Finland on Flickr under Creative Commons.
On October 7, 2006, Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya left her apartment in Moscow to run errands (Smith 493), just as she would on any normal autumn day. However, upon returning, Politkovskaya was gunned down in the lobby of her apartment building by an unidentified man (Azhgikhina 1247). Although several arrests were made in 2014 in connection with Politkovskaya’s death, the murder still remains unsolved, as those responsible for ordering her killing have not yet been identified (“Anna Politkovskaya”). However tragic, Politkovskaya’s murder, and the lack of justice brought for those accountable, comes as no surprise. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 82 journalists in Russia have been murdered since 1992 (“Journalists Killed Between 1992 and 2018”). Additionally, Russia ranked ninth on the CPJ’s 2017 Impunity Index, “a ranking of countries where journalists are murdered and their killers go free” (Witchel). This ranking is consistent with Freedom House’s 2017 Freedom of the Press scores, which assigned Russia a “not free” status with a score of 83/100 (“Freedom of the Press 2017”). As reflected by these rankings and statistics, the risk associated with being a journalist in Russia is not only extremely high, but also commonly acknowledged. However, Politkovskaya’s murder generated a significant amount of international attention. She garnered a reputation as an “international observer”, highlighting abuses towards civilians within Russia and Chechnya over the course of her journalistic career (Smith 494). Although Russia was no stranger to the killing of journalists before Politkovskaya, her murder was recognized as a “turning point” in Russian journalism, based on many suspicions and connections drawn between her gender and the fact that her murder occurred in “broad daylight” on Vladimir Putin’s birthday (Gessen). Thus, the question remains, what does the murder of Anna Politkovskaya demonstrate about the state of journalism and media in modern-day Russia? It is evident that the public indifference to the murder of Politkovskaya, matched with the inadequate investigation that followed, symbolizes the modern-day political climate within Russia, defined by the prioritization of state interest and reputation in exchange for a dire loss of freedom of expression and freedom of the press.
The Historic Role of the Media in Russia
In order to analyze the symbolism behind Politkovskaya’s murder, it is necessary to understand the historical changes regarding the role of the media and journalism within Russia. During the era of Soviet governance, journalism provided a way for citizens to connect with the government. Ultimately, the role of journalists was to help address the concerns of citizens, such as the lack of access to educational and economic opportunities (Roudakova 415). According to Lenin’s socialist doctrine, the relationship between the press and its citizens during this period allowed for “‘a healthy amount of criticism and self-criticism’ as a part of the self-regulating system” (415). The concept of the press as the fourth estate emerged under the Soviet regime during the 1980s, developing journalists as political actors responsible for dealing with the “social suffering” of everyday citizens (416). When Boris Yeltsin became President of the Soviet Federative Socialist Republic in 1991, the nature of media became not only pluralistic, but competitive. This mainly resulted from the differing political and economic interests of various “media tycoons” who owned the major broadcasting media (Lipman 9). For example, during the 1990s, Channel I was a very prominent TV channel, often advocating in support of the President and his administration (Strovsky 132). However, NTV, launched in 1994 as the first privately owned television network, offered a more critical lens to the Russian media landscape by criticizing government decisions and advocating in support of democratic principles (Lipman 7).
However, when Vladimir Putin became President of the Russian Federation in 2000, he took advantage of a country in a state of weakness, recovering from both an economic crisis and Western humiliation from the Cold War (5). As a self-pronounced “‘product of Soviet patriotic education’” (Strovsky 132), Putin utilized an anti-Western rhetoric as a way to gain power within Russia and advance his goal of returning Russia to a state that prioritized its own national interests (Lipman 6). As a result, Putin sought to utilize the media as a political tool through a variety of transformations to its structure. In order to rid Russia of the pluralistic nature of the media environment during the 1990s, Putin aimed to distance himself from any association with the heads of media broadcasting companies and as such, his government discretely attacked the legitimacy and credibility of these media outlets (Strovsky 133). With big media corporations relying heavily on the support of the government, the public’s high resentment towards the wealthy cooperate elite resulted in the dismantling of many media corporations (Lipman 9). Backed by the goal of protecting national interest, the Kremlin gained control of all national TV channels within three years of Putin’s presidency (Strovsky 134). Rather than focus on print media, television was targeted, as it was able reach greater audiences throughout the country and have a greater influence on public opinion (134). During Putin’s second term as President, he aimed to ensure that even non-state owned media outlets became closely affiliated to the Kremlin. For example, Kommersant, a popular and relatively government-critical newspaper in Russia, was sold to a close friend of the Kremlin after the death of its long-standing owner (135). With the state owning 80 percent of all media (Azhgikhina 1253), journalism within Russia became subject to severe political bias, with the Kremlin controlling what information was available to the public and how it was distributed.
The Existence of Independent Media and Laws to Protect Journalists in Russia
Although the Kremlin has an almost complete monopoly over media outlets within Russia, independent media sources do exist and are legally protected by Russian law. According to Article 29(1) and Article 29(5) of the Russian Constitution of 1993, the rights to free speech and mass communication are guaranteed, acknowledging that censorship shall be prohibited (“Constitution of Russian Federation”). Additionally, the Russian Law on Mass Media, adopted in 1991, specifically protects the freedom of the press, prohibits censorship, and protects the right of journalists to “refuse to write against their own principles and values” (Azhgikhina 1255). Other significant laws were passed during the 1990s, including the Law on Advertising, which sought to separate “news from promotional or advertising content” (Roudakova 419). Therefore, by the end of the 1990s, the laws in place to protect free speech, independent media and freedom of the press signified a promising future for the state of journalism in Russia.
During his second term of presidency, Putin rejected accusations about the lack of media freedom within Russia by praising the Internet as a space for free speech and open discussion. He acknowledged the inability of the Kremlin to control all outlets in the ever-expanding era of electronic media (Strovsky 133). Despite these encouraging remarks, Putin’s transformation of the media landscape during his early years in power demonstrated a disregard for the laws in place and a neglect for the rights of journalists and independent media in Russia. After gaining control of the three major national television channels in 2003, the Kremlin began conducting weekly meetings with these stations in order “to discuss in detail on what and how is worthy of reporting and in what manner” (Strovsky 135). These censorship tactics used by the government are in violation of both the Russian Constitution and the Law on Mass Media, which strictly prohibit all forms of censorship. Additionally, the election laws in Russia, which legally censor journalists from criticizing candidates during elections, are in complete contradiction to the Law on Mass Media (143). Lastly, the freedom of the press is challenged by the Doctrine of Information Security, which, when legally enacted in 2016, officially “restrict[ed] freedom of speech in the coverage of anti-terrorist organizations” (Azhgikhina 1255).
Putin’s government has also continuously sought to undermine the professional integrity of journalists, especially in the realm of independent media. Beginning in the early 2000s, Putin began consistently criticizing independent outlets for presenting false information and skewing his own words. A notable example was highlighted in 2007, when he criticized journalists on national television for eavesdropping on conversations; he claimed the media misrepresented information in a comment he made about the “sexual prowess” of the President of Israel (Azhgikhina 1259). Putin’s resentment towards the independent media and journalists has been further exemplified in the lack of public briefings held by his administration. When Putin held press conferences during his first two terms of his presidency (which only happened once each year), only journalists from state-controlled media were invited, which ensured safety from unwelcome questions and restriction of access to important information by independent media sources (Lipman 160). The government’s sensitivity to media criticism has even resulted in thousands of lawsuits against journalists. These suits use laws “protecting reputation, honor, and dignity” as a way to undermine freedom of the press within Russia (Azhgikhina 1255). Perhaps unsurprisingly, in a survey published by the Russian Union of Journalists in 2006, 80 percent of journalists claimed that they actively self-censor themselves in their reporting (1259). Therefore, although Putin has vocalized his respect for media diversity and the freedom of the press, his actions and rhetoric towards journalists showcase that the Kremlin will do everything in its power to centralize media relations, call into question the integrity of journalists, and exclude access to information for independent media outlets.
Anna Politkovskaya’s Work, Death & Legacy
Anna Politkovskaya was not well received within Russia because of these structural impediments to free speech and open reporting following Putin’s rise to power in 2000. Throughout her career, Politkovskaya investigated and reported on sensitive and controversial topics. Much of her investigative journalism focused on the Chechen Republic, an area which, during the 1990s and 2000s, was riddled with violence, war, instability and high-level corruption (Pohl 30). Her work aimed to humanize those suffering under “Putin’s Russia” by assessing the “secrets of victimization, the psychology of the war, and the use of sex to inflict pain and dominate others” (Pohl 31). Many of her pieces were published under her employer, Novaya Gazeta, including a 2001 article titled “Disappearing People”, which highlighted the disappearance of Chechens and accused “a special police team dispatched from Siberia” for these crimes (Lipman 155). Unlike many others in the field, Politkovskaya “wrote against a great silence in Russia” (Pohl 31) and was not afraid to continuously criticize members of government, even leaders, for their role in perpetuating a state of terror and conducting consistent abuses of human rights. In her 2004 book, Putin’s Russia: Life in a Failing Democracy, Politkovskaya criticized Putin’s leadership for being “neo-Soviet”, arguing that,
“Human beings do not have independent existences; they are cogs in the machine whose function is to implement unquestioningly whatever political escapades those in power dream up. Cogs have no rights. Not even to dignity in death” (Politkovskaya 13).
In the last few years of her life, Politkovskaya centered her focus on criticizing the leaders of the Chechen Republic, particularly Ramzan Kadrov, son of then-Chechen President, Akhmad Kadrov (Pohl 32). Politkovskaya criticized Ramzan for his involvement in several accounts of kidnapping, abuse, and torture committed by his personal militia. She also argued that he was guilty of escalating the state of terror within Chechnya (33). For many, Politkovskaya’s obsession with condemning Ramzan’s actions turned into a personal vendetta, especially in 2006, when she began to attack the financing of the Chechen Republic and accused Kadrov of using the money from his foundation to fund personal endeavors (35). Despite deep awareness of the climate surrounding investigative journalism in Russia, Politkovskaya was dedicated to addressing politically sensitive issues and was unafraid to make enemies amongst the highest ranked within Russian society.
Although she devoted her journalistic career to highlighting the abuses and suffering of the Russian people, Politkovskaya’s murder in 2006 was met with extreme public indifference. Three days following Politkovskaya’s murder, President Putin issued a statement regarding her death, claiming that her “political influence was quite insignificant inside Russia” and that “her murder brought more damage to Russian authorities than her publications ever did” (Roudakova 413). Although aimed at discrediting her work and career, Putin’s words were true. A week following the death of Politkovskaya, a survey from a Russian polling agency showed that only six percent of Russian respondents had ever read Politkovskaya’s work, while very few actually attended the rally in her honor the day after her death (Lipman 153). Although many condemned the murder, there are many Russian citizens, and even journalists, who provide several counter-claims to the idea that Politkovskaya’s murder was in any way symbolic. First, many believe that Politkovskaya was more of a politician than a journalist and that instead of remaining objective, most of her work projected accusations against government leaders and officials (Roudakova 413). Secondly, several journalists argue that as a political activist, Politkovskaya’s journalism was a “political weapon” that would inevitably find her “caught in the crossfire” of someone’s “political showdown” (413). Thirdly, as a dual United States-Russian citizen, many believed that Politkovskaya’s connection to America and Western democratic ideals acted as the main drivers behind her attacks on Russian leadership (413). Lastly, Politkovskaya was not perceived as a role model within the world of Russian journalism because “other journalists simply will not go to Chechnya” (Lipman 156). With the perception of Chechnya as a place of instability and hopelessness, many journalists believe that Politkovskaya knew the risk she was taking by reporting on such a taboo region within Russian affairs (156).
Although many of these claims may reveal some truth about Politkovskaya’s career as an investigative journalist in Russia, the symbolism behind her murder is reflected in the inadequate investigation conducted by the Russian government following her death. It took ten months following Politkovskaya’s murder for Russian officials to announce the first developments in the case, in which it was revealed that ten people had been arrested (Smith 499). Despite no official announcement of the names of the suspects, the press leaked this information to the public days later (Lipman 155), which many, including the heads of Novaya Gazeta, believe allowed the perpetrator who killed Politkovskaya to flee Russia (Smith 500). Additionally, a significant amount of evidence during Politkovskaya’s case, such as the video footage of the murder and photos of the perpetrator, disappeared for weeks, then was rediscovered, which raised serious doubt about their legitimacy (p.506). Although five men pled guilty in 2014 to their involvement in “planning, participating and carrying out” the murder, many people, including Karrina Moskalenko, the lawyer for the Politkovskaya family, believe that the case remains unresolved and that many of the sentences have only been used as a way to divert “international attention away from the case” (“Anna Politkovskaya”). As the Committee on Investigative Journalists has reported, problems such as “failing to follow leads, failing to question professional contacts of the journalists, concealing important evidence without explanation, and bringing ill-prepared cases to trial” are common issues associated with the investigations into the murders of journalists in Russia (Smith 507). In a country that ranks ninth on the CPJ Immunity Index, it is clear that political power is significantly more important than bringing forth justice for violations of human rights within Russia. Twelve years later, with uncertainty still looming over her case, the inability to solve the murder of Politkovskaya is a direct representation of the attitude towards journalists and independent media in modern day Russia.
In a 2017 Country Report of Russia by the Worlds of Journalism Study, only 13.3 percent of Russian journalists believed that their freedom to make editorial decisions had increased within the past five years of their career, while only 17.2 percent believed the credibility of journalism had increased over the same period (Anikina 5). This perception of lack of freedom and credibility within the realm of Russian journalism results from a long-standing rhetoric and critique of “journalism as prostitution”: the idea that in a period of pluralism in Russian media, partisan journalism skewed the distinction between what was genuine and what was considered “selling out” (Roudakova 422). As public trust in the media began to reach an all-time low at the end of 1990s (424), Putin capitalized on a society that was weak and unhappy, and worked to centralize all political power, including giving control of the media to the Kremlin at the turn of the century. Seventeen years later, President Putin’s approval rating sits at 83 percent (Russian Times), showcasing remarkable public support in comparison to many other leaders around the world. The near-monopolization of the media by the state has allowed for the public to align with the priorities and interests of the Kremlin, a vision that Putin had sought to achieve upon entering office. This explains why Politkovskaya’s murder was received with such indifference and disregard within Russia. The state of media control and the rhetoric used to represent journalism within modern-day Russia has framed activists, such as Politkovskaya, as enemies of the state. The neglect and mismanagement of the investigation into Politkovskaya’s murder further exemplifies both the disinterest in protecting journalists, as well as the prioritization of protecting the state’s interests in times of crisis. In 2007, before the UN Human Rights Committee, Putin stated that “journalists who work honestly should be under the state’s protection” (Azhgikhina 1260). Since making this claim, another twelve journalists have been murdered within Russia (“Journalists Killed Between 1992 and 2018”), signifying that honest journalism, in all reality, means state-censored journalism.
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