The world has lost one of its finest human rights defenders with the weekend murder of Russian journalist and author Anna Politkovskaya. Gunned down in the elevator of her Moscow apartment, she gained international attention with her scathing reports on Russian abuses in Chechnya and the undemocratic leadership of Vladimir Putin.
She was executed just two days before she was to publish an expose on the Chechen Prime Minister, Ramzan Kadyrov, a man close to Putin and accused of various human rights atrocities.
Over the last decade, Politkovskaya, 48, had received numerous death threats and was threatened, kidnapped and hassled by Russian authorities. She remained resolute in the face of these challenges and continued to uncover the ignored war in Chechnya. Politkovskaya saw her job as a moral obligation in a nation increasingly slipping back into authoritarianism.
The former president Mikhail Gorbachev said of her death: “It’s a strike against all the democratic independent press, a terrible crime against the entire country, against all of us.”
Her strength lay in dismissing the traditionally accepted lines between journalism and activism. She once organised the safe passage of dozens of elderly civilians trapped in the Chechen capital Grozny and attempted to negotiate the release of hostages during the 2002 Moscow theatre siege.
The deputy editor of her newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, said that “she worked in places where the value of a human life did not really amount to anything at all.” Politkovskaya is the latest high-profile journalist to be murdered in post-Soviet Russia, though none of the previous crimes were followed by a trial or conviction.
During an interview with the Guardian in 2004, she accused the “war on terror” of helping Putin because “the truth is that the methods employed in Putin’s anti-terrorist operation are generating a wave of terrorism the like of which we have never experienced.”
I met Politkovskaya during this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival (the podcast of my interview is here). I was struck by her determination and strength in the face of unimaginable obstacles. Her journalism (a recent example is here) was usually focused on the victims of state terror, not the leaders and military figures who committed the atrocities. She was, therefore, unlike most Western journalists, who institutionally prefer to report slavishly every utterance of the supposedly powerful in society.
I was honoured to have spent some time with one of the finest and humblest journalists in the world. We all mourn this profound loss.