On October 7, 2006, journalist Anna Politkovskaya was found shot to death in the elevator of her apartment building in Moscow. It was widely assumed at the time that it was a contract killing, with the contract taken out by the government of Vladimir Putin. Polikovskaya was a journalist who had reported extensively on the war in Chechnya and the atrocities committed by Russian troops in that country. She was a constant thorn in the side of Putin’s government, exposing corruption, cover ups and even murderous activities.
Ten men were arrested in connection with the killing, however only three were charged; all were acquitted in a trial that was closed to journalists. A fourth man, Colonel Pavel Ryaguzov was charged with what in the US would be accessory to murder, criminal connections to the killers. Ryaguzov is an officer with the Federal Security Bureau (FSB) which is the post-Soviet successor to the KGB (the organization is essentially the same, only changing its name and not its activities). In 2009, the Russian Supreme Court overturned the acquittals and ordered new trials for all three, saying there had been procedural violations by the judges and the defense. It wasn’t until July of this year that a former police colonel was arrested and indicted in the murder of Politkovskaya. After making a deal with authorities, the retired police colonel supposedly revealed the masterminds behind the murder plot behind closed doors.
Politkovskaya’s killing highlighted the restricted nature of press activities in Russia despite claims to democracy made by the government. In the years since the collapse of the Soviet government, the expected expansion of rights for citizens and their activities has not occurred. In the weeks and months following Politkovskaya’s death and the trial several as yet unexplained incidents occurred. A human rights lawyer who had represented Politkovskaya previously, fell ill after toxic mercury tablets were found in her car. To believe that Putin’s government is operating any differently or more openly than the former Soviet government is naive. The primary difference is the ease with which information does get out despite attempts to threaten or even kill all the messengers.
Journalists in the United States often whinge about their lack of access to political figures, and that does indeed occur at times. However, every politician in this country knows that in order to win re-election they have to make themselves available to the press. We pride ourselves in this country on the transparency of our political institutions. And, even if things are not as transparent as we would like or think they should be, our journalists do not run much risk reporting on those activities or institutions. Journalists in Russia risk their lives to report on government figures and their activities.