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Anna Still Speaks - Remembering Anna Politkovskaya, a fearless journalist, 10 years after her assassination

Friday 7 October 2016 - 10:32am

On 7 October 2006, the PEN community lost a tireless champion, a voice for the voiceless and a fearless colleague, Anna Politkovskaya, who was found shot to death in her apartment block in Central Moscow.

Since her killing, PEN has been campaigning for justice for Anna Politkovskaya, a courageous journalist and fierce critic of Vladimir Putin.  Despite facing persistent death threats and previous assassination attempts, Anna Politkovskaya continued her work on exposing human rights abuses and corruption in her native Russia.

After several years and a lengthy retrial, in May 2014 five men were finally convicted of having been involved in Politkovskaya’s murder, including three who had been acquitted in a previous trial. In June 2014, all five were sentenced to prison terms, with two receiving life sentences.

Whilst welcoming this significant development, PEN remains gravely concerned that those responsible for ordering the killing have not yet been brought to justice.

PEN will continue to be the voice of an extraordinary colleague who made the ultimate sacrifice for human rights and freedom of expression. It is her voice that we amplify in calling for an end to impunity for the killings of journalists and writers wherever and whenever they occur.

PEN members from around the world remembered Anna Politkovskya at the 82 PEN International Congress. PEN president Jennifer Clement gave the following speech:

‘Anna Politkovskaya was assassinated ten years ago on 7 October. Her body was found in the elevator of her apartment block in Central Moscow. Before her killing, Anna received numerous death threats and was even poisoned on a flight in 2004. Many people might ask why a journalist, using simply her words as her trade, would be such a threat to anyone? But many of us here today know too well the risks we take to bear witness, to speak out against injustice, to tell the truth. Anna was a tireless advocate for human rights and an outspoken critic of Vladimir Putin's policy on Chechnya.  She spent years fighting against those who wished to stop her from speaking honestly, to stop her airing her brave, necessary, “off message” journalism: to stop her from simply doing her job.

‘For those of us here today and for countless thousands around the world, Anna was certainly no beached whale, no pariah. She was – for many - a friend and a respected colleague, and – for all - a voice always ready to fire up to fight injustice and defend free expression, with a determination to ensure that the truth was heard even – in the end – at the expense of her own life.

‘Anna still speaks. She speaks because her words and the values that she embodied remain as relevant today as they did a decade ago. Anna’s words are still important and necessary in calling for justice from Putin’s government. She speaks because impunity is still a real threat to the work of journalists in Russia.

‘She speaks for Akhmednabi Akhmednabiev, shot to death outside his home near the Dagestani capital, Makhachkala in 2013. Today, three years later, no one has been arrested in connection with his murder.

‘She speaks for journalist and human rights defender Natalia Estemirova, who was kidnapped and murdered in July 2009 in Grozny. Today, seven years later, no one has been arrested in connection to her murder. And there are others who have been silenced for bearing witness, for writing the truth.

‘Her words and her legacy ring out today and she will continue to be heard until the work she died to protect is finished.

The following articlewas found in Anna Politkovskaya’s computer after her death and is addressed to readers abroad. The article was read at the closing ceremony of the 82 PEN International congress.

So what am I guilty of? | Anna Politkovskaya

“Koverny,” a Russian clown whose job in the olden days was to keep the audience laughing while the circus arena was changed between acts. If he failed to make them laugh, the ladies and gentlemen booed him and the management sacked him.

Almost the entire present generation of Russian journalists, and those sections of the mass media which have survived to date, are clowns of this kind, a Big top of kovernys whose job is to keep the public entertained and, if they do have to write about anything serious, then merely to tell everyone how wonderful the Pyramid of Power is in all its manifestations. The Pyramid of Power is something President Putin has been busy constructing for the past five years, in which every official – from top to bottom, the entire bureaucratic hierarchy – is appointed either by him personally or by his appointees. It is an arrangement of the state which ensures that anybody given to thinking independently of their immediate superior is promptly removed from office. In Russia the people thus appointed are described by Putin’s Presidential Administration, which effectively runs the country, as “on side.” Anybody not on side is an enemy. The vast majority of those working in the media support this dualism. Their reports detail how good on-side people are, and deplore the despicable nature of enemies. The latter include liberally inclined politicians, human rights activists, and “enemy” democrats, who are generally characterised as having sold out to the West. An example of an on-side democrat is, of course, President Putin himself. The newspapers and television give top priority to detailed “exposés” of the grants enemies have received from the West for their activities.

Journalists and television presenters have taken enthusiastically to their new role in the Big Top. The battle for the right to convey impartial information, rather than act as servants of the Presidential Administration, is already a thing of the past. An atmosphere of intellectual and moral stagnation prevails in the profession to which I too belong, and it has to be said that most of my fellow journalists are not greatly troubled by this reversion from journalism to propagandising on behalf of the powers that be. They openly admit that they are fed information about enemies by members of the Presidential Administration, and are told what to cover and what to steer clear of.

What happens to journalists who don’t want to perform in the Big Top? They become pariahs. I am not exaggerating.

You don’t get used to this, but you learn to live with it. It is exactly the way I have had to work throughout the Second War in the North Caucasus. To begin with I was hiding from the Russian federal troops, but always able to make contact clandestinely with individuals through trusted intermediaries, so that my informants would not be denounced to the generals. When Putin’s place of Chechenisation succeeded (setting “good” Chechens loyal to the Kremlin to killing “bad” Chechens who opposed it), the same subterfuge applied when talking to “good” Chechen officials. The situation is no different in Moscow, or in Kabardino-Balkaria, or Ingushetia. The virus is very widespread.

At least a circus performance does not last long, and the regime availing itself of the services of clownish journalist has the longevity of a mouldering mushroom. Purging the news has produced a blatant lie orchestrated by officials eager to promote a “correct image of Russia under Putin.” Even now it is producing tragedies the regime cannot cope with and which can sink their aircraft carrier, no matter how invincible it may appear. The small town of Kondopoga in Karelia, on the border with Finland, was the scene of vodka-fuelled anti-Caucasian race riots which resulted in several deaths. Nationalistic parades and racially motivated attacks by “patriots” are a direct consequence of the regime’s pathological lying and the lack of any real dialogue between the state authorities and the Russian people. The state closes its eyes to the fact that the majority of our people live in abject poverty, and that the real standard of living outside of Moscow is much lower than claimed. The corruption within Putin’s Pyramid of Power exceeds even the highs previously attained, and a younger generation is growing up both ill-educated, and militant because of their poverty.

I loathe the current ideology which divides people into those who are “on side,” “not on side,” or even “on the wrong side.” If a journalist is on side he or she will receive awards and honours, and perhaps be invited to become a Deputy in the Duma. Invited, mind, not elected. We don’t have parliamentary elections any more in the traditional sense of the word, with campaigning, publication of manifestos, debates. In Russia the Kremlin summons those who are irreproachably on side, who salute at the right times, and they are enlisted in the United Russia party, with all that entails.

Today a journalist who is not on side is an outcast. 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 email 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 offices who have nowhere else to bring their troubles, because the Kremlin finds their stories off-message. The only place they can be aired is in our newspaper, Novaya gazeta.

What am I guilty of? I have merely reported what I witnessed, nothing but the truth.

Published in a special issue of Soyuz zhurnalistov, 26 October 2006