Russian journalist reacts to Politkovskaya verdict

byAlexander Yakhontov
Feb 26, 2009 in Journalism Basics

The trial in the murder of Novaya Gazeta journalist Anna Politkovskaya, killed in Moscow on October 7, 2006, ended February 19, in a result that shocked and saddened many of her friends and colleagues from across the world: all four suspects were acquitted and set free.

To discuss the verdict, IJNet Russian Editor Alexander Yakhontov spoke with Vitaly CHELYSHEV, secretary of the Russian Union of Journalists and Grand Juryman. He is also a deputy editor-in-chief of the Russian professional magazine JOURNALIST and editor-in-chief of its Web site. In the 1980's, together with Andrey Sakharov, Boris Eltsin and other members of the Soviet Parliament, he worked at an "inter-regional deputy group" famous for its democratic initiatives.

IJNet: When you heard the news from the court, what was your first thought?
VC: I thought that in Russia nothing changes. Post-Soviet Russian history is a history of murders of journalists that seem to never be interrogated.

The first to be murdered was Dmitry Holodov, of the newspaper Moscovski Komsomolets, who studied corruption in the army. He was blown up in October 1994, and an ensuing investigation lasted [a long time]. Though it was obvious that the murder was carried out by order of higher ranks in Russia's Armed Forces, suspects were found, put on trial and acquitted.

Vladislav Listiev, a famous TV journalist and showman, was killed in March 1995. For the past 14 years, investigators have not found anyone to bring to court. Two hundred volumes of the criminal case lay under dust in archives.

Since then, murders of journalists in my country have become normal.

IJNet: Why do you call murders of journalists in Russia "normal?"
VC
: For 15 years in Russia 150 journalists have been lost, 36 of them killed in Moscow. Nobody knows the real number of journalists who have been threatened and attacked; there are hundreds. The number of journalists detained and beaten during protest marches and meetings by the police is not statistically registered.

Among recent examples is the attack of Michael Beketov, editor of the newspaper Khimkinskaya Pravda, with whom I'm personally acquainted. Michael became considered "invalid" just because his articles supported the local people's movement against cutting down an ancient oak grove near Moscow to erect upscale residences. He was severely beaten in November 2008.

The most vivid illustration of murder being "normal" is the liberal Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, where Anna Politkovskaya worked. This publication is a tragic champion for killed journalists. Its deputy editor-in-chief Jury Schekochikhin has presumably been poisoned, Anna Politkovskaya was shot at the entrance of her house, Igor Domnikov was hammered to death, Anastasia Baburova was recently killed in the daylight in the center of Moscow -- all of them investigative journalists. Only Sergey Zolovkin, special correspondent of Novaya Gazeta, survived an attempted murder, though he had to then hide away in Germany. Zolovkin's case was the only one in which a killer was convicted.

As for Anna there were attempts earlier to kill her. She had been poisoned during a flight to Beslan in the Caucasus to investigate the terrorist takeover of a local school. The editor of Novaya Gazeta Dmitry Muratov told me that if it were not for the professionalism of the doctors in the city of Rostov, Anna would have been lost then.

IJNet: Do you think her murder could have been properly interrogated?
VC
: I'm not an interrogation officer, but I'm convinced that being an inspector in Russia is no easier than being a journalist. I am convinced that there are forces in Russia that blockaded proper interrogation of this case, as well as made it difficult to find real intermediaries and real murderers.

Vladimir Putin, well-known for his special "love" for journalists as president, commented on Politkovskaya's murder soon after, saying her death is more harmful to Russia than her journalism. This was the original message for those who could help the investigation, as well as those who could impede the investigation.

IJNet: Why did this investigation attract a lot of public interest?
VC
: When the spokesman of the Public Prosecutors Office declared that the suspects in Politkovskaya's case had been seized, there appeared hope in society that the court would bring the criminals to justice. Alas, litigation failed, once again.

I only hope that the failed trial awakes a sense of shame and bitterness not only in the minds of Russian people, but also in the minds of the authorities in my country. Something should alter for us at last in Russia; otherwise we will never respect ourselves.

For more information on the acquittal, go to http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/100954.

For more information on the trial and on the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, view IFEX's extensive "updates" on the Politkovskaya case at http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/98687.