10 Years on From the Murder of Russian Journalist Anna Politkovskaya, What Has Changed?

Anna Politkovskaya
Defendants in the murder trial of Russian journalist and human rights activist Anna Politkovskaya, (L-R) Ibragim Makhmoudov, Lom-Ali Gaitukayev, Dzhabrail Makhmoudov, Rustam Makhmoudov and Sergei Khadzhikurbanov sit inside a glass cage Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters

This article originally appeared on the International Federation of Journalists' website.

Anna Politkovskaya was not the first journalist killed in Russia after the end of USSR. On the day of her assassination in Moscow October 7, 2006, the death list of the Glasnost Defense Foundation consisted of 211 names. It took us, the organizers of the memorial meeting in Moscow central Pushkin Square, 40 minutes to read out all those names, which struck all the attending Russian and International journalists.

Anna Politkovskaya became the first Russian journalist whose death became international news and initiated, after many years, a new interest in Russia and Russian media. Dozens of international conferences, films, books, debates and articles made an iconic image of her courage and dedication to the profession and human rights for hundreds of colleagues and the public in many countries.

Remembering Anna, today we remember at the same time all those who paid with their lives for the truth. Standing in Pushkin Square in 2006, we believed that her murder would be the last. We were wrong. Today the number of deceased media professionals, those who have been killed, disappeared, died in unclear situations, is more than 350 in Russia. Some of them lost their lives during conflicts, in the Caucasus and East Ukraine, but many have been killed far from conflict zones. Most of these tragedies have ended with impunity.

To tell the truth, according to UNESCO data, less than 10 percent of all killings of journalists around the world end with a prosecution and punishment of those responsible, killers and masterminds.

So Russia is not an exception.

The most resonant of murders have still not been investigated properly. The killing of Dmitry Kholodov from Moscovsky Komsomolets in 1994 (in 2014 the European Court of Human Rights decided that Russian Federation had failed to conduct a proper investigation into the case), of TV star Vlad Lietiev, Russia's 'Lary King' in 1995, Larisa Yudina from Kalmykya in 1999 (for Russian journalists she was the first icon of human rights journalism), the mysterious death of Yury Shcekochikhin in 2003, 16 out of 17 journalists killed in Dagestan and many others.

The investigation of Politkovskaya's killing, despite the jailing of some people, is currently frozen. The chief editor of Novaya Gazeta, Dmitry Muratov, said that he felt disappointed and had no hope.

Fortunately, monitors of the Glasnost Defense Foundation and RUJ have not had to report any killings in 2015 and 2016. But attacks on journalists, beatings, threats and different forms of censorship remain everyday practice.

The culture of impunity (where violence against journalists is neglected by the law enforcement agencies, attacks and threats on journalists go unpunished, and legislation devoted to the protection of journalists does not work properly) is a real threat to freedom of the media, and for democratic development itself.

Recent media regulations, especially since 2014, have created new challenges for independent voices in the media. As Director of Mass Media Defense Center, board member of Article 19 media lawyer Galina Arapova wrote, "all the recently adopted laws create additional privileges for state media, in particular state TV" and at the same time "the authorities make a strong use of administrative resources to keep the press in check and tighten censorship around individual journalists and media organizations."

"The criminal code provides about 30 provisions that could be used against journalists from criminal defamation and infringement of privacy up to publication of state secrets, extremism and separatism," Arapova added.

And article 144 of the Criminal Code that is supposed to protect journalists from harassment by providing criminal liability for the "obstruction of the lawful professional activities of journalists"—is used very rarely.

Media experts count over 20 new regulations and amendments to laws passed through parliament since 2014, that restrict journalist and media work. Many of them have never been properly discussed with the professional and expert community. Implementation is also a problem where the legislation such as the anti-extremism law is misused against the media.

Restrictive regulation of the Internet is also a problem with some laws introducing harsh sanctions or the closure of media outlets. The law banning the use of obscene language can lead to fines imposed on media, but also the blocking of websites or eventual closing of the media outlet. Then there is the recent initiative of the so called "Yarovaya law" (introduced by MP Yarovaya) that demands full control on the Internet (experts say this is impossible for technical and financial reasons).

It is no exaggeration to say that new restrictions for the media (as well as for NGOs) are closely associated with anti-Russian sanctions. They are obvious reactions to the political tensions and are really harmful for free speech and civil society in Russia.

Shadows of a new Cold War are becoming darker, and spoil the media environment. Mainstream media produce anti-Western and anti-American propaganda as response to anti-Russian propaganda and widespread presentation of Russia as a new "Evil Empire". Many journalists are scared to combat the propaganda and do not want to risk their jobs. Self-censorship is really strong, especially during the crisis in the industry and job cuts.

Despite this, the Russian media landscape is not a desert, and many independent and interesting media still operate and produce interesting content and innovative strategies, both in management and investigation, with courage and commitment to the journalist mission, human rights and justice. It is a pity that their experience is not known abroad.

Russian media are undergoing a crisis. The economic crisis squeezes the space for diversity and many independent voices cannot survive. Print media is forced to find shelter on the Internet, while many have closed. The lack of a transparent market and the domination of the state in the media industry, with its monopoly on distribution, and control of the state advertising market is also a problem.

But the main problem today is a lack of professional solidarity among media actors, weak solidarity among journalists and a lack of awareness among the general public of the importance of independent journalism in their own right and as a public good.

The Russian audience is passive, the recent elections have shown this clearly.

Raising awareness of journalism as a public good, the business of everyone and developing professional solidarity could be the main tool in overcoming the culture of impunity and pressure on the media freedom.

The Russian Union of Journalists tries to develop this awareness. On October 7 th the RUJ presents a memorial event, and play "Life in Second" based on texts written by Anna Politlovskaya and Yury Shchekochikhin, prepared by young actors, in the Moscow Journalists Club.

It is important that young people pay attention to those who died for the truth. It is our hope. Hope that the masterminds behind the killings of Anna and others will be brought to court. Hope that journalists would no longer face violence and threats, and the Russian audience would support general development of free and responsible media.

The 10 years since Anna's assassination has been a very tough time for Russian media and Russian journalists. And it is important to be honest and to realize that the future is dependent on us as well.

Our profession is a profession of everyday choice. It is important to remember. It is important to bring Russian journalism and its independent voices to the international audience. It will also be our tribute to Anna.

Nadezda Azhgikhina, is RUJ Executive Secretary and Vice President of the European Federation of Journalists.