It also says something about how much those in our corporate media had wished this story had gone away since it made them squirm just a little too much, but fortunately for us all, that didn’t happen (witness here and here).
So we can state that reporting on stories of national importance in this country can result in ruffling a few feathers from time to time, or in the case of Judith Miller, a jail sentence (and I know that categorizing Miller’s work as legitimate reporting as opposed to war cheerleading is definitely a stretch).
However, in Russia under Vladimir Putin, reporting on these types of stories can get you killed (as I noted yesterday, there’s a lot to say about this guy, and I’d better get started).
This takes you to a story about Ivan Safronov, a reporter for the Russian daily Kommersant who was investigating a possible arms sale to Syria and Iran via Belarus before he fell to his death from a fifth-story window.
As noted in the story…
Safronov did not say where the warning came from (about a criminal investigation for revealing state secrets), according to Kommersant, but he had repeatedly been questioned in the past by the Federal Security Service or FSB, which suspected him of divulging state secrets in his reports. The FSB is the main successor agency to the KGB.And Putin is ex-KGB, of course.
The AP story also notes…
Russia has been plagued by attacks on reporters who seek to expose official corruption and other abuses. The problem was highlighted by the October killing of Anna Politkovskaya (pictured), an investigative reporter and a harsh critic of human rights abuses in Chechnya.It’s kind of mind boggling to realize that a war zone is the only place where more journalists have been killed than Russia.
A report Tuesday from the Brussels-based International News Safety Institute listed Iraq, Russia and Colombia as the deadliest countries for journalists and their support staff. There were 138 deaths in Iraq over the past decade, 88 in Russia and 72 in Colombia, the report said.
And concerning Anna Politkovskaya, she was discussed in an article in The New Yorker in January by Michael Specter called “Why Are Vladimir Putin’s Opponents Dying” which also mentioned Alexander Litvinenko, a former FSB colonel and a fierce Putin critic who was murdered via a poisoning last November.
Politkovskaya was a legendary reporter, and Specter’s article notes the following…
In the West, Politkovskaya’s honesty brought her a measure of fame and a string of awards, bestowed at ceremonies in hotel ballrooms from New York to Stockholm. At home, she had none of that. Her excoriations of Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, insured isolation, harassment, and, many predicted, death. “I am a pariah,’’ she wrote in an essay last year. “That is the result of my journalism through the years of the Second Chechen War, and of publishing books abroad about life in Russia.’’Specter’s fine article goes on to describe an assortment of threats endured by Politkovskaya via phone calls in the middle of the night, letter and Email threats “all promising the worst,” an attempted poisoning in Beslan, and a murder in 2001 of a woman near her apartment building (with authorities believing the killer had thought she was Politkovskaya, who had fled to Vienna after receiving more threats from accusing a special-services police officer of committing atrocities against civilians).
Despite the fact that Politkovskaya was articulate, attractive, and accomplished, she was barred from appearing on television, which is the only way the vast majority of Russians get news. To the degree that a living woman could be airbrushed out of post-Soviet history, she had been. “People call the newspaper and send letters with one and the same question: ‘Why are you writing about this? Why are you scaring us?’ ” she wrote. “ ‘Why do we need to know this?’ ” She provided an answer as much for herself as for any reader: “I’m sure this has to be done, for one simple reason: as contemporaries of this war (in Chechnya), we will be held responsible for it. The classic Soviet excuse of not being there and not taking part in anything personally won’t work. So I want you to know the truth. Then you’ll be free of cynicism.’’
That afternoon (October 7th last year), Politkovskaya drove to a supermarket near her mother’s apartment, on the Frunzenskaya Embankment. Her daughter had planned to meet her there but was delayed. Nonetheless, as a surveillance camera at the store later showed, Politkovskaya was not alone. A young woman and a tall, slender man whose face was obscured by a baseball cap lurked in the aisles as she shopped. When Politkovskaya finished, she drove home in her silver Vaz 2110 and parked a few feet from the entrance to her building. She carried two bags of groceries up to her apartment, on the seventh floor, in the building’s tiny elevator and dropped them at the door. Then she went down to fetch the rest of her parcels. When the elevator opened on the ground floor, her killer was waiting. He shot her four times—the first two bullets piercing her heart and lungs, the third shattering her shoulder, with a force that drove Politkovskaya back into the elevator. He then administered what is referred to in Moscow, where contract killings have become routine, as the kontrolnyi vystrel—the control shot. He fired a bullet into her head from inches away. Then he dropped his weapon, a plastic 9-mm. Makarov pistol whose serial number had been filed away, and slipped into the darkening afternoon.
Here is more of what Politkovskaya endured…
“First they ordered me to stand right in the middle of a torn-up field for more than an hour,’’ she wrote in “A Small Corner of Hell,” describing how she was tortured in 2001 by the Army while reporting in Chechnya. “Hour after hour of interrogation followed. A succession of young officers completely took away my freedom.” The officers constantly reminded her that they answered to Putin alone. She went on:The careers of Politkovskaya and other noted Russian journalists developed when they were allowed greater freedom in the late 1980s at the urging of Mikhail Gorbachev, and as a result…
I was not allowed to make a phone call or walk around, and I was forced to put all my personal belongings on the desk. I choose to omit the nastiest details, since they are completely indecent. . . . From time to time, the zealous young officers were joined by their senior officer, a lieutenant colonel with a swarthy face and dull dark bulging eyes. He would send the youngsters out of the tent, turn on music that he considered romantic and hint at a “favorable outcome” of the affair if I were to comply in certain ways. Between the lieutenant colonel’s visits, the young officers tortured me, skillfully hitting my sore spots. They looked through my children’s pictures, making a point of saying what they would like to do to the kids. This went on for about three hours. Finally the worldly-wise lieutenant colonel, who would boast now and then that he was giving his life for the Motherland, glanced at his watch and said in a businesslike tone, “Let’s go. I’m going to shoot you.”
Politkovskaya was eventually released. Afterward, she came to see Chechnya as a metaphor. “This vicious cycle of widespread lies has been maintained by people who call themselves officers,’’ she wrote. “After this lawlessness, they leave for their homes, all over the country. Chechnya as a mode of thinking, feeling, and acting spreads everywhere like gangrenous cells and turns into a nationwide tragedy, infecting all strata of society.’’
Anna Politkovskaya seemed to draw energy from the public’s indifference. Her pieces could be shrill and polemical, and even those who agreed with her often failed to read them. She didn’t care. “She was on a mission for justice,” Aleksei Simonov, the longtime leader of the Glasnost Defense Fund, told me when we met for a drink at Moscow’s House of Journalists. “Anna was a very peculiar figure in journalism. She was not loved, because she was never part of a team. She was a loner. She could address her best friends in a most rude and dismissive manner if she thought they were wrong about something.’’
The dull, formulaic journals of Soviet life—Izvestia, Literaturnaya Gazeta, Ogonyok, and Moscow News—suddenly became engrossing. Each morning, huge crowds would gather in Pushkin Square to read the papers, discuss the events of the day, and argue about what might come next. New papers were starting to appear as well; the first, and best, was Nezavisimaya Gazeta. By the end of the decade, the distinctly capitalist business journal Kommersant had also appeared, first weekly, then every day. Although truth, rather than profits, was the priority in that brief, emotional, and highly romantic period, circulations remained large, because people were still hungry for genuine information about their own lives and history.All of that slowly came to an end, however, as the breakup of the former Soviet Union continued under Gorbachev’s non-Communist successor Boris Yeltsin and prices soared as a result of Yeltsin’s so-called “economic reforms,” with newspapers eventually becoming too expensive. The young journalistic peers of Politkovskaya who had championed Yelstin’s rise overlooked enough of Yeltsin’s flaws to help him get re-elected in 1996 over his Communist rival Gennady Zyuganov. Putin, learning how Russian T.V. could be used to achieve political power from that election, won in 2000, and under his watch, Russian television networks came under the ownership by the state or companies like Gazprom, the hugely powerful Russian oil interest, which ensured that the crusading reporting of the post-Gorbachev days would come crashing to a halt, with only Politkovskaya and a few other truly brave souls carrying on as before.
I realize that there really is no parallel to the pressure faced by journalists and news outlets involved in the Libby trial versus the type faced by Ivan Safronov, Anna Politkovskaya and other reporters in harm’s way in places such as Iraq. But I think anyone who confronts entrenched power, either in the way of a political organization, corporation or another type interest or advocacy group, can look to these brave individuals and commemorate their sacrifice by doing the best work that they can.
Finally, I think this column by Peter Osnos about the Libby trial makes some good points (though I most certainly do not think that "everyone lost"), and I would add that an unintended consequence may be greater scrutiny of bloggers as a result of the great work by firedoglake in this case.
But if that means ensuring the free flow of any type of information at all in an attempt to preserve our government and way of life (avoiding the de-evolution of Vladimir Putin’s Russia in that regard), then I think it will be a small price to pay.
Update 03/06/07: And it's not like we have bragging rights in this country when it comes to press freedom either, as you can see here and here.