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The Hazards of Reporting on Human Rights Abuses
Courageous journalists around the world expose political violence and corruption. This makes them an enemy of the perpetrators of such crimes
By Courtney Suciu
World Humanitarian Day is designated August 19 by the United Nations to honor international aid workers who have lost their lives working for humanitarian causes. This year’s theme #NotATarget focuses on the civilians affected by armed conflict – including aid workers dedicated to helping those in desperate need.
These workers become targets of violence themselves because of the relief they provide. Not only are members of agencies that bring food, water, shelter and medical assistance to victims of crisis strategically singled out for attack, but often journalists are too.
Serving as our eyes and ears around the world, reporting on abuses of power, exploitation of the vulnerable, and the devastation resulting from conflict, journalists are frequently considered a threat by the perpetrators of cruelty and violence.
This was the case with Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian journalist and humanitarian who became internationally known for her fearless criticism of the Chechen-Russian conflict and the presidency of Vladimir Putin.
Who was Anna Politkovskaya?
“If one word sums up the life and work of Anna Politkovskaya, Russia’s foremost investigative reporter assassinated at the age of 48, it is bravery,” according to her obituary in The Guardian.1
In the 90s, Politkovskaya witnessed her then-husband Alexsandr Politkovsky’s career in journalism take off. With the rise of perestroika and the fall of the Soviet Union, it was an extraordinary, exhilarating time to be writing about Russian politics and he often found himself in the middle of the action working long hours, and when he wasn’t working, out drinking with his friends.
“You can’t come back from a difficult assignment and stay home like a good little boy,” Politkovsky said in the documentary 211: Anna.2
Meanwhile, Politkovskaya, who had met her husband while studying journalism in Moscow, found herself unfulfilled with the monotony of domestic life. “I’m preparing borsch,” she told filmmakers, “but what am I doing? I haven’t always done this.” Her husband’s work dominated her life, Politkovskaya explained, his “work was an obstacle” that kept her “from doing my own thing.”
“I suffered because of this situation,” she lamented.
So, she began writing about post-Soviet social struggles, including the plight of refugees who were streaming into Russia. Following the First Chechen War in 1991, chaos dominated the republic where a small-scale civil war was waged between those who sought an independent Chechnya and those who remained loyal to Russia. A devastated economy, religious extremism and political violence were a breeding ground for radical activity. Terrorists attacked Russia and Russia retaliated, culminating in the Second Chechen War.
“When the second war in Chechnya began, [Politkovskaya] got onto that enraged horse’s back and hasn’t come down since,” Politkovsky said.
Exposing human rights abuses inflicted on Chechen civilians by the pro-Russian regime was a controversial topic. According to Politkovskaya’s editor, his newspaper received letters and cancellations in protest to the articles she wrote on the subject. One woman in the film admitted, “I didn’t read many of her articles…I knew something bad was going on over there. I didn’t want to come in contact with such horrifying things.”
Hostage crisis at a Moscow theater
However, angry letters and cancelled subscriptions were the least of Politkovskaya’s troubles. According to her obituary in The Guardian, Russian troops had locked the reporter in a hole and threatened her with rape; she’d also been kidnapped, tortured and poisoned throughout her career. Yet she continued to not only chronicle the hellish conditions of the people caught in the middle of this conflict; at times Politkovskaya also found herself participating in relief efforts, and a one point, mediating a pivotal hostage crisis.
In October 2002, 40 armed and masked Chechen extremists raided a Moscow theater and held 850 hostages, including performers and members of the audience. Bassist Ilya Lysak who attended school with Politkovkaya’s children was among them. In the documentary, he recalled the terrorists’ one demand: an end to the war.
Because Chechens saw Politkovskaya as someone sympathetic to their suffering and because she exposed the ways they’d been dehumanized by the Russians, the hostage-takers knew her and trusted her. She was called in to de-escalate the situation.
In an interview after the siege,3 Politkovskaya recounted how one of the masked men aggressively questioned the doctor who had accompanied her into the theater that day. Why did the doctor point out that he’d taken care of Chechen children? the terrorist wanted to know. It seemed to him that in making such a distinction, the doctor perceived Chechen children as different from other children and that Chechen people were a subspecies of human – which was how they were often treated.
Frightened, Politkovskaya spoke up, insisting: “All people are the same. They have the same flesh and blood.”
“Suddenly, this simple thought ha[d] a peace-making effect,” she recalled.
But after two days, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) stormed and gassed the auditorium. All of the terrorists died, and up to 204 of the hostages – every one of them Russian civilians – though the Kremlin denied responsibility for the fatalities. The poison used is believed to be a derivative of fentanyl.
Vladimir Kurbatov, whose 13-year-old daughter was among those who perished in the massacre, told filmmakers, “Putin said everything had been done in the best way possible, that no one had died from the gas, that the gas was harmless, that everyone had died of hunger, insomnia or of chronic illnesses. Later, it became a taboo subject.”
For Carolyn Gage,4 who wrote in memory of Politkovskaya for the feminist publication Off Our Backs, Politkovskaya’s exchange with the terrorists was a quintessential moment in the controversial journalist’s career: “it was this focus on the immediate suffering, the outrage of the moment that was the hallmark of her journalism – and possibly the secret behind her tremendous courage.”
Final interview in October 2009
While Politkovskaya spent a decade criticizing the corrupt politics of Putin, in the final months before her death she turned her attention to the Moscow-backed Chechen Prime Minister Ramsan Kadyrov. “In fact,” Gage wrote, “just two days before her murder, on Kadyrov’s 30th birthday, she made him the subject of her last radio interview.”
(This birthday was significant because it marked the age Kadyrov was eligible to become president of Chechnya, a position he continues to hold today.)
Speaking on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Politovskaya discussed her investigation into accounts of torture and death at prisons where Kadyrov’s militia held people who had been abducted “for completely inexplicable reasons.”
“Kadyrov is the Stalin of our times,” she elaborated. “This is true for the Chechen people…I dream of him someday sitting in the dock, in a trial that meets the strictest legal standards, with all of his crimes listed and investigated.”
On October 7, 2006, Politovskaya was found near her apartment, shot twice in the shoulder and once in the head at point blank range. “The pistol, its serial number filed off, was left next to the body, the sign of a contract killing,” noted Gage, who added “Kadyrov had publicly vowed to murder her.”
The date of the assassination also coincided with Putin’s 54th birthday, though the Russian president rejected allegations of Kremlin involvement and minimized the award-winning reporter’s career.
“She was a journalist who was critical of the current authorities in Russia,” he said in a press conference a week after her death.5 “But although she was well-known among human rights groups and abroad, she had minimal influence on political life in Russia.”
Since Putin took office in 2000, dozens of journalists covering powerful institutions have died. But this phenomenon isn’t unique to Russia.
Twelve journalists have been killed in the Philippines since Rodrigo Duterte was elected president in 2016.6 Over the last five years, 32 Mexican journalists have been fatally attacked.8 In 2018, nine journalists were extinguished by a suicide bomber in the capital city of Afghanistan, where 35 reporters have been killed between 1992 and 2017.8
According to Reporters Without Borders, 1,035 journalists have been killed worldwide in the last 15 years.9
For further research
Global Issues Library
Seeking more information about the conflict in Chechnya, human rights violations against journalists and insights on humanitarian crises around the world? Researchers can explore video, primary source materials, books and other multimedia content in the comprehensive Global Issues Library database.
This includes documents from the European Court of Human Rights, international government correspondences, documentaries like The Media and Human Rights and Silenced Voices and monographs such as The Insurgency in Chechnya and the North Caucasus.
Additional books are available from Ebook Central, including:
Committee, T. P. J. (2015). Attacks on the Press: Journalism on the World's Front Lines.
Council, of Europe. (2013). Human Rights and A Changing Media Landscape.
Gilligan, E. (2009). Terror in Chechnya: Russia and the Tragedy of Civilians in War.
Politkovskaya, A. (2008). A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya.
Sampaio-Dias, S. (2016). Reporting Human Rights.
Wilhelmsen, Julie. (2016) Russia's Securitization of Chechnya: How War Became Acceptable.
1. Hearst, D. (2006, Oct 09). Obituary: Anna Politkovskaya: Crusading Russian Journalist Famed for her Exposes of Corruption and the Chechen war. The Guardian. Available from ProQuest Central and ProQuest Global Newsstream.
5. Hannah Cleaver and, A. B. (2006, Oct 11). Putin Denies Kremlin Had Hand in Reporter's Death. National Post. Available from ProQuest Central and ProQuest Global Newsstream.
6. 12th journalist Killed in Philippines Since Duterte Took Office. (2018, Jul 20). EFE News Service. Available from ProQuest Central and ProQuest Global Newsstream.
7. Mexico: Mexican Radio Journalist Killed; 32nd Since Dec. 2012. (2018, May 17). Asia News Monitor. Available from ProQuest Central and ProQuest Global Newsstream.
Courtney Suciu is ProQuest’s lead blog writer. Her loves include libraries, literacy and researching extraordinary stories related to the arts and humanities. She has a Master’s Degree in English literature and a background in teaching, journalism and marketing. Follow her @QuirkySuciu