Thursday, October 27, 2016

Andrey Arkhangelsky - Murder in Moscow: Anna's legacy

On 7 October 2006, journalist Anna Politkovskaya was murdered in Moscow. Ten years on, the battle to publish investigative journalism in Russia is still being lost.

When Polikovskaya died, there was speculation of government involvement, an international outcry and various posthumous awards for her investigative work. Yet in Russia there was no scandal, no mass protests. She was mostly deemed a "crazy loner", one of a very rare breed of reporters who believed in press independence.

A decade later, we have a better understanding of Politkovskaya's significance for Russian journalism. Like many of her generation, she was a product of the perestroika years of 1985-91, and remained faithful to its ideals in the years that followed, when a majority of her colleagues "tired of freedom". In the twenty-five years after perestroika, neither freedom of speech nor other political freedoms have been much prized by the majority of citizens of this new Russia.

In the 2000s, Politkovskaya's stance was regarded as extreme. Who was there to fight against anyway? For what? The years of plenty were at their peak. Sooner or later economics would win and everything would sort itself out. Even liberals believed that.

It is important to understand the tradition to which Anna belonged. For her, being a journalist meant serving society, a tradition of self-sacrifice dating back to the nineteenth-century Russian intelligentsia. In the Soviet period, this tradition was inherited by dissidents. In Russia, the line between journalism and social activism remains blurred, and not because Russian journalists are unprofessional, but because independence of the press has remained the ideal of rare characters such as Politkovskaya. There is no long-standing tradition of media independence. Each generation of journalists instinctively chooses between fusing completely with the state, which means producing propaganda and giving loyal support, or remaining steadfastly professional and inwardly dissident. Working as a journalist in Russia is not so much pursuing a profession as living an ethical, existential choice.

Politkovskaya worked as an investigative journalist for Novaya Gazeta. Founded in 1994, Novaya Gazeta is probably the only publication that has consistently practised investigative journalism from the outset. Since 2000, more journalists and staff from Novaya Gazeta have been murdered than from any other publication: Yury Schekochikhin, Igor Domnikov, Anna Politkovskaya, Anastasia Baburova, Stanislav Markelov, Natalia Estemirova and others. The Russian-language New Times magazine, edited by Yevgenia Albats, also remains true to the investigative genre, as did, until recently, the media group RBC. From 2014, RBC published a succession of high-profile investigations into the activities of major companies, top-ranking Kremlin officials and their relatives. But, on 13 May 2016, the group's editor Yelizaveta Osetinskaya and others were fired after reports of Kremlin pressure on the group's holding company Onexim and RBC's management.

Investigative journalism had already disappeared from other publications. It is expensive as well as dangerous. Investigation is labour-intensive, it calls for a large team and takes a lot of time. The speed of modern media obliges editors to churn out instant copy. That, however, is not the main reason why there are so few investigations in the Russian media. And the disbanding of the top team at RBC after it launched a series of investigations into senior state officials sent a signal to other media.

However, most resonant investigations of recent years have not been the work of journalists, but of politicians of one kind or another. The flagship of investigative journalism in Russia remains the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), a non-profit organization created in 2011 by the opposition activist Alexey Navalny. It conducts the most high-profile investigations of corrupt senior officials, and they are carried out by a highly professional investigative team of 20 to 30 lawyers, specialists and volunteers.

Similarly, the first person to write in 2014 about the secret funerals of Russian paratroopers when the military conflict in the Donbass region was escalating was Lev Shlosberg. Although Shlosberg publishes Pskovskaya Gazeta, he is primarily a politician. We can also classify as journalistic investigative reporting, the 2008 document, "Putin: The Results – An Independent Expert Report" written by opposition politicians Boris Nemtsov and Vladimir Milov. The report described President Putin's abuse of power and widespread corruption in government.

The paradox is that, in Russia today, no amount of scandalous revelations of corruption at the highest level sways public opinion. For most people, the findings remain unknown, because 80 per cent of the population get their news only from television. TV aside, the most popular form of journalism in Russia today is the topical opinion column… 
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