The photograph of a bespectacled, grey-haired woman, her head resting in her hands has become iconic to human rights campaigners worldwide. A symbol of the risks campaigning journalists in Russia face.
Five years ago, Anna Politkovskaya - an investigative journalist who wrote highly critical reports of Russian military actions in Chechnya and of the Kremlin - was gunned down in the lift of her Moscow apartment block.
The killing drew worldwide attention to violence against journalists in Russia and raised widespread suspicions that public officials were responsible for ordering the murder.
The man suspected of fatally shooting her, Rustam Makhmudov, was arrested in May in his native Chechnya. In August, another arrest was made in connection with her murder – this time a Russian former senior police official. Despite ongoing investigations, Russian authorities have failed to secure any convictions in the case and there are still many unanswered questions as to who ordered her murder.
Amnesty International has repeatedly documented that very little is being done to address the threats Russian journalists face and ensure the attacks are effectively investigated.
Elena Milashina, a journalist and former colleague of Anna Politkovskaya at the Novaya Gazeta newspaper says that the situation for journalists and human rights defenders has taken a turn for the worse after Politkovskaya’s killing.
“The number of journalists and human rights activists, who are killed and beaten every year has steadily grown. Few of these crimes have been investigated.”
She believes Anna Politkovskaya’s murder has silenced many Russian journalists.
“The murder of Anna made Russian journalists fearful of speaking out. Many of my colleagues have said publicly that they are afraid to continue their work. They are afraid to write about corruption, to write about the truth.”
According to the Committee for the Protection of Journalists, 22 journalists and media workers were killed in Russia between 2000 and 2010.
Elena Milashina was physically attacked when covering the aftermath of the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis. She managed to flee her attackers, but two weeks later, a colleague of hers who was working on the same story was targeted by thugs. She was hit badly on the head. The journalists reported it to the police, but the case was never investigated.
She compares the current media landscape in Russia to the Soviet Union in the late 1970s and early 1980s, where the country enjoyed relative economic and political stability, but Kremlin critics were muzzled.
Although Novaya Gazeta is allowed to print articles that criticize the government today, she believes the newspapers is among a few token platforms the Kremlin tolerates in order to give the impression that Russia is not a authoritarian state.
“Of course Russia has changed. But just like in the Soviet era, the majority of the country is brainwashed and manipulated by state-controlled TV. There are 140 million people in this country, and 70% of them get their information from these government-run channels,” she says.
The main problem, says Alexei Simonov of the media freedom organization Glasnost Defence Foundation, is that Russian journalists are losing interest in uncovering corruption and investigating human rights abuses because their articles do not change anything. Rarely is anyone taken to court or convicted of anything in the wake of a media investigation. Human rights abusers are often allowed to carry on with impunity.
“If the results of your writing don’t influence the political climate in your country, what reason is there to do it? You are not being heard.”
He quotes the example of Sergey Magnitsky, a lawyer working for a US firm who died in pre-trial detention after being held for eleven months and subjected to ill-treatment.
Human rights activists believe Sergei Magnitsky was detained because he uncovered a massive tax fraud involving investigators and prosecutors, among others.
“Recently, several Russian newspapers published the list of people allegedly responsible for Magnitsky’s death – lawyers, judges, prison workers etc. But not a single one of them was investigated.”
He is not hopeful that the 2012 presidential elections will bring much change.
“I don’t think that anything will improve in Russia. During the elections, there will be a small window of freedom. And as soon as the elections are over, that window will be closed.”
Amnesty International has said that the Russian authorities deliberately generate hostility towards critical journalists and human rights defenders.
“This has created an environment in which attacks against journalists are formally condemned, but institutionally tolerated,” said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for Europe and Central Asia.
“If Russia is to develop into the rights-respecting, law-governed society that the next post-Soviet generation will aspire to, then this trend needs to be reversed soon.”