Now they've killed Anna. An assassin murdered Anna Politkovskaya, one of Russia's leading investigative reporters, in Moscow on Saturday. She's the latest of 43 journalists killed in Russia since 1992many of them, like Anna, slain execution style. Most of those killings remain unsolved, not a surprise in the Russia of Vladimir Putin, the ex-KGB autocrat who has little patience for such democratic irritants as a free press.
Over the past 15 years, I've had the privilege of working with my colleagues to train reporters overseas. For those of us in international journalism training, Anna was something of a legenda relentless investigative reporter who refused to back down as Putin and his cronies have stifled, squeezed, and squelched that nation's once-promising independent media. We muckrakers in the West are fond of saying that we speak truth to power, but what we do is nothing compared with what Anna Politkovskaya did on a regular basis, exposing war crimes in Chechnya and hypocrisy in the Kremlin. Her work was required reading for anyonejournalists, political scientists, intelligence analystsinterested in how post-Soviet Russia really operates.
For daring to speak the truth, Anna had been threatened, beaten, and apparently poisoned. Yet still this intense, driven mother of two continued her work. There were plenty of warnings to stop. The last high-profile journalist in Russia to run afoul of the powerful was American Paul Klebnikov, the acclaimed editor of Forbes Russia. His 2004 murder is the target of Project Klebnikov, an innovative attempt to investigate his still-unsolved case. Led by one of America's best investigative journalists, former Fortune reporter Richard Behar, the project plans to hold a conference in Moscow this winter. Here's what Behar wrote me after Anna's death:
The big question is, who's next on the Moscow Mystery Hit List? A year ago, Anna was helping me come up with a list of Russian reporters who could work with us at Project K. She came up with maybe 3-4 truly investigative reporters who are still doing in-depth and sensitive work in Russia. Nobody else dares, not even most of the Western press. Her murder is all the more reason why we have to continue. Our plan is to bring the best investigative reporters from West and East together under one tent for a brain drain. We need to look at possible links between all these killings. And we need somehow to send a message that the silencing of a reporter does not stop his or her work. If we do not send that message, the killers win. Period.
You know, it's easy to bash the news media. At its worst, journalism is insipid, trite, sensational, and celebrity driven. But at our best, we're the public's watchdogs, playing key roles in fostering accountability and transparency. We in the West tend to take this for granted, but step overseas and you can see the struggle for a watchdog media in its starkestand deadliestterms. Since the crumbling of the Berlin Wall in 1989, worldwide interest in tough, investigative reporting has exploded around the world. It has reached into Africa's poorest countries, the Arab world, and former Soviet republics.
I can't tell you how inspiring it is to work with young reporters from developing countries who are asking the right questions, demanding good answers, and figuring out how to leave their societies just a little better than they found them. As much as Western politicians rail about the media, most understand that an independent news media is as essential for development and democracy as are honest, professional cops, judges, and generals. That's why aid agencies from the United States and Europe have poured millions of dollars into helping foster independent media overseashoping that journalists like Anna Politkovskaya will step forward and set examples for a whole new generation of journalists. But there's a powerful backlash brewing.
Putin's Russia is among the worstranking behind only war-torn Iraq and Algeria as the deadliest country for journalists during the past 15 years, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, which does heroic work trying to safeguard an all-too vulnerable profession. A CPJ report released last month gives a sobering tally for the number of journalists killed worldwide580 since 1992, or more than three per month. Some have died in war zones, but most7 in 10have been murdered. Worse, they've been murdered with impunity: In 85 percent of those cases, no killer was ever brought to justice. Over half of those murders can be tied to government officials, the military, or political groups.
CPJ has put together a list of the deadliest countries for journalists. Included are not only likely suspects like Iraq and Colombia but also India, the Philippines, Turkeyand Russia. Next time you see a hard-hitting dispatch from overseas, consider what it might have taken for that information to surface. And say a prayer for Anna, her two children, and the future of independent media everywhere.
BAD GUY OF THE WEEK: He's not merely the bizarre-looking leader of a rogue state that just exploded its first nuclear bomb. Kim Jong Il, a charter member of the Axis of Evil, is also a bona fide mob boss. While most corrupt states become infected by organized crime from the ground up, Kim has reversed that process, sponsoring vast criminal enterprises that include industrial-level production of narcotics and counterfeiting of currencies and products ranging from cigarettes to Viagra. U.S. intelligence believes his impoverished regime has earned hundreds of millions of dollars from these rackets, helping keep his government flush and his nuclear ambitions on course. A key question on analysts' minds: With his diplomats running drugs out of embassies worldwide, what happens to those criminal networks when the regime eventually falls?
Photo credit of Kim Jong Il: KCNA VIA KOREAN NEWS SERVICE—AFP/GETTY IMAGES