Murdering the Messenger

Anna Politkovskaya’s death raises an important question.

Steve Weinberg

Miners demonstrate in front of UMWA Health and Retirement Funds Headquarters in the 1970s.

The title of Anna Politkovskaya’s new posthumous anthology, Is Journalism Worth Dying For?: Final Dispatches (Melville House, April), poses a provocative question. The answer is probably no. But freedom of speech and freedom from corruption might be worth dying for, and sometimes only journalists can make those freedoms happen.

Anna Politkovskaya knew she would become a target, and indeed almost died countless times before her murder. But she would not—and could not—stop.

Politkovskaya, who worked as an investigative reporter for the independent Moscow newspaper Novaya Gazeta until she was assassinated in October 2006 at the age of 48, asked herself this question in a piece never submitted for publication. She was apparently feeling unsure if the irony would be appreciated:

I have never sought my present pariah status and it makes me feel like a beached dolphin. I am no political infighter. I will not go into the other joys of the path I have chosen – the poisoning, the arrests, the menacing by mail and over the Internet, the telephoned death threats. The main thing is to get on with my job, to describe the life I see, to receive visitors every day in our newspaper’s office who have nowhere else to bring their troubles, because the Kremlin finds their stories off-message…What am I guilty of? I have merely reported what I witnessed, nothing but the truth.

In 1976, Don Bolles, an investigative reporter for the Arizona Republic newspaper, died after targets of his inquiries placed a bomb under his car. American journalists killed on American soil by the subjects of their stories is a phenomenon so rare that Bolles’ murder stood out.

In many other nations, targets of investigative reporting routinely try to murder journalists. One of the victims: Politkovskaya, murdered in the elevator of her Moscow apartment building in the prime of her career. In its balkanized iterations, the former Soviet Union constitutes hostile territory for reporters. Dozens of other nations are at least as danger-filled for journalists, with Colombia and Mexico in the Western Hemisphere among the leaders.

As Bolles was being blown to shreds, I was attending the first gathering of a new organization called Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE), which met that June in Indianapolis. Later in 1976, IRE served as the sponsoring organization for a team of journalists gathering in Arizona hoping to carry on Bolles’ projects. The intended message to would-be killers: You can kill the journalist, but you cannot stop the investigation. During the 1980s, when I was the executive director of IRE, I traveled to the Soviet Union at the invitation of gutsy native journalists hoping for guidance from American investigative reporters. 

I say this about myself to set the stage for the following statement: Of all the investigative reporters I’ve been acquainted with, Politkovskaya embodies the most remarkable combination of courage (some might call it foolhardiness) and talent. She knew she would become a target, and indeed almost died countless times before her murder. But she would not – and could not – stop. More than anything else, Politkovskaya cared about justice for the varied citizens of the conglomeration of nation states that used to constitute the Soviet Union.

Is Journalism Worth Dying For?, translated from the Russian and mostly published originally in Novaya Gazeta, is a marvelous testament to Politkovskaya’s courage and skill. It picks up where her previous books – like A Russian Diary: A Journalist’s Final Account of Life, Corruption, and Death in Putin’s Russia and A Dirty War: A Russian Reporter in Chechnya–left off.

The new volume opens with a heartbreaking note from Raisa Mazepa, Anna’s mother, who was hospitalized the day her daughter died violently. Politskovskaya had been scheduled to visit her mother that day, but called in the morning to say Mazepa’s other daughter would be visiting instead. The next day, Anna promised, she would make it to the hospital.

Over the years, Mazepa had begged Politskovskaya to think about safety in her job, given her status as daughter, wife, mother and future grandmother. Her daughter’s reply: Of course I know the sword of Damocles is always hanging over me. I know it, but I won’t give in.”

During the same conversation, Mazepa told her daughter about the book she was reading in the hospital, a book Anna had brought to her. Mazepa read a passage to her daughter, a passage that seemed to encapsulate the Russian experience: There are drunken years in the history of peoples. You have to live through them, but you can never truly live in them.”

Perhaps Politkovskaya ended up dead because she tried to live both through the drunken years and in them. She inserted herself into foreign” wars taking place within the boundaries of the former Soviet Union, especially the war between the central Russian administration in Moscow and the newly independent land of Chechnya, with its mostly Muslim population. Maybe her controversial reports from Chechnya for a decade before her death led to Politkovskaya’s murder in Moscow, maybe not. It is unclear who committed the murder, as is the case almost every time a Russian journalist dies violently (four Novaya Gazeta journalists were murdered between 2001 and 2009). Maybe those in power who are supposed to solve homicides do not care when a pesky journalist dies. Or maybe those in power are complicit in the homicides.

Politkovskaya knew how to write about something other than corruption and war and poverty. A brief section of the book collects her writings under the heading The Other Anna.” The introduction to that section sounds a bit strained, though, saying Anna has been described as steely.’ She was not; she was matter-of-fact. These articles show her humanity, a sensitive conscience, a willingness to engage with the unfamiliar, and regret that her homeland was not a more enjoyable place to live.” Yes, even when Politkovskaya was trying to find fun, she could not put aside the low threshold of outrage that characterizes great investigative reporters.

Just before her death, Politkovskaya was investigating the torture of innocent citizens accused of crimes by government officials. She noted:

[T]he overwhelming majority of these suspects have been designated terrorists. Now, in 2006, this habit of designating people as terrorists has not only displaced any genuine attempt to combat terrorism, but is of itself producing potential terrorists thirsting for revenge. When the prosecutor-general’s office and the courts fail to uphold the law and punish the guilty, and instead merely act on political instructions and connive in producing anti-terrorist statistics to please the Kremlin, criminal cases get cooked up like pancakes.

Politkovskaya might not have believed journalism is worth dying for. But the targets of her investigations apparently believed investigative journalism can be halted by murdering the messenger.

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Steve Weinberg is an investigative reporter in Columbia, Mo. His latest book is Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller.
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